Science and Politics Collide as EPA Considers New Air Rule

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2006 (ENS) - Recent studies strengthen the evidence that exposure to fine and coarse particulate matter can cause serious health problems, including premature death, according to a review released Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmentalists and public health advocates hope the new assessment will convince the Bush administration to tighten federal rules for particulate matter, but some Senate Republicans remain unconvinced the evidence justifies more stringent regulations.

Particulate matter is a broad term for tiny airborne particles in dust, smoke and soot, created by a wide array of sources, including cars, factories, power plants and forest fires.

The particles have been linked to respiratory and heart ailments and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

power plant

Conemaugh power plant in Pennsylvania burns over four million tons of coal per year and is is jointly owned by a eight power companies. (Photo courtesy Stefan Schlöhmer)
The new assessment includes analysis of more than 200 scientific studies published after April 2002 – the cut-off date for research included in the air quality criteria document used by the EPA to propose new particulate matter standards late last year.

Completed by EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment, the review detailed that recent studies have found health effects from particulate matter at lower levels than earlier research.

New research also increases concern that particulate matter is more harmful to children and causing more deaths that previously thought, according to the assessment.

The review comes two months before EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson is required by law to decide whether or not to update existing health-based standards for particulate matter.

In December 2005, Johnson proposed keeping current annual standards for coarse and fine particulate matter, but tightening daily limits.

The proposal has faced sharp criticism from environmentalists and public health groups, including the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who contend it is too lax.

Johnson has even faced criticism from the very body that advised him on the proposal – EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC).

An independent scientific advisory committee, CASAC provided its recommendations to Johnson in August 2005 after reviewing information provided by the agency, including the 2004 air quality criteria document.

In an unprecedented move, members of CASAC sent a letter in March to Johnson re-explaining the science behind their advice and urging him to adopt their recommendation for a stricter annual standard for fine particulate matter.


A dust cloud rises from a field being plowed in the Central Valley of California. (Photo courtesy NPS)
The committee also called on Johnson to reconsider the EPA's proposal to limit the coarse particulate matter standards to urban areas - the proposal would also stop monitoring of coarse particles in rural areas and would exempt mining and agricultural operations.

At a Senate hearing last week, California Democrat Barbara Boxer said the proposal "just boggles the mind."

The EPA seems to be "veering away from science and making politics the key ingredient in these decisions," Boxer said.

Industry groups and some Senate Republicans also are critical of the proposal to tighten daily limits because they are too strict, not too lax. They argue the proposed rules are overly stringent and they question the science behind the EPA proposal.

"The rationale to tighten the standard is weak," said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, who orchestrated last week's hearing on the science and risk assessment behind the proposed revisions to the particulate matter standards.

Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said EPA "cherry-picked" information to justify its proposal and did not fully consider studies that cast doubt on the health risks from particulate matter.

George Gray, EPA assistant administrator for Research and Development, told the panel that "reasonable minds" could differ on what are appropriate standards to protect the public from particulate matter.

"Setting a standard is the judgment of the administrator," Gray said. "The job of my office, and a job that I think we have done very well, is to present the administrator with a complete picture of the science."

The process of setting the standard is ongoing, Gray said, and senators should be assured that the final rule would fulfill "the goal of protecting public health."

Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, said the proposal will harm the economy and blasted the EPA for "moving the goal posts" on communities struggling to meet the current particulate matter standards.

More than 200 counties are trying to meet the current standards, Voinovich said, and tighter regulations could affect more than 600 counties.


Air pollution, which contains particulate matter, hangs over the city of Denver, Colorado (Photo courtesy NREL)
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is not allowed to consider economic impacts when setting health-based standards for particulate matter and other key air pollutants.

Voinovich said the particulate matter standards should not be revised "until we have adequate information that tells us with greater certainty the health benefits and whether we are targeting the most harmful constituents of particulate matter – especially considering the negative impacts on our economy."

Democrats said the scientific evidence justifies standards more stringent than those proposed by the administration and criticized Republicans for trying to pressure the agency into relaxing its proposal.

Republican comments on uncertainty are "a smokescreen to divert attention" from the benefits to cutting particulate matter pollution, said Senator Frank Launtenberg, a New Jersey Democrat

"It is like saying 'the fire is only in the basement, so let's not get excited upstairs,'" Lautenberg said.

There are more than 2,000 scientific studies linking particulate matter with adverse health effects, said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, and a clear economic incentive for tightening federal standards.

"The costs of breathing dirty air are a far heavier burden on our economy than the costs of air pollution controls," said Carper, who took issue with Republican claims that stronger rules will hurt the economy and cost jobs.

"We have heard those claims every time EPA has proposed a new regulation over the past 30 years," Carper said, "and those claims have not proven to be true. We can have cleaner air and grow our economy."