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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Soot Rules: No Small Matter

Air Date: Week of September 22, 2006

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The EPA has released what it calls “the most health protective air quality standard in our nation’s history.” But Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells host Bruce Gellerman that the agency ignored its own science advisors’ advice to enforce stricter controls on soot particles in the air.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Its being called one of the most important public health decisions in years, and many health advocates are not happy with it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has defied the recommendation of its own science advisors on regulating the tiny airborne particles in soot. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us to discuss the fallout. And Jeff in this case I guess the word fallout is more than just an expression, huh?

YOUNG: Yeah, we’re talking actual fallout here, from power plants, smokestacks, tail pipes of autos, all of these mixing together to form these little particles and droplets that we then breathe in. And scientists have known for a long time that particulate matter is a hazard--linked to asthma attacks, hospital visits, respiratory disease and premature death. And many, many recent studies reinforced that. But the health standards had not been updated in nine years. So EPA was under a court order to review those standards.

GELLERMAN: And what did EPA do?

YOUNG: EPA tightened one standard, the daily standard on particulate matter, by about fifty percent. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson says the result will be fewer premature deaths and lowered health costs.

JOHNSON: I am proud to announce my final decision: EPA is issuing the most health-protective national air quality standards in our nation’s history.

GELLERMAN: That sounds pretty good to me Jeff. Why are public health groups so upset about that?

YOUNG: Well, while EPA tightened one standard, it left another very important one unchanged. That’s the annual average standard - which is a very important measure of the sort of day in- day out exposure that people have. Most scientists said that should be made stronger, in order to protect public health as the law requires. And nearly every public health and medical group that you can think of—the American Medical Association, the pediatricians, the Thoracic Society—they all said this standard should be stricter. And EPA did not follow that advice.

Harvard medical school professor, Dr. Frank Speizer, is a member of the EPA’s board of science advisors. It’s called the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. It also recommended a stronger standard. Speizer says the bottom line on this is that the difference between what EPA chose and what his committee recommended means more people will continue to die prematurely.

SPEIZER: If they go with the number they have at present time, you can be assured that at least as many people who died in 9-11 will die each year from air pollution in this country. It probably means that the political influence they’re listening to has more weight than the scientific influence.

GELLERMAN: Now Jeff what does Dr Speizer mean when he talks about political influence?

YOUNG: Well, this is the first time an EPA administrator has not followed the recommendations of the agency’s science advisory committee when setting one of these final health standards. And that committee’s been around for more than 30 years. So naturally that raised some suspicion.

GELLERMAN: How does EPA explain that, not following the advice of its own advisors?

YOUNG: EPA administrator Johnson says it’s because there was no unanimous agreement among the committee members. He says that this is a complex issue and because there was no unanimity there that shows that reasonable people can disagree. However, you look a little more closely at what that the committee actually told administrator Johnson, and you find that only 2 of 22 members disagreed here. All the others said the best science points to a need for a stronger standard.

Dr. Rogene Henderson is with the Lovelace respiratory center in Albuquerque and she chairs the science advisory committee.

HENDERSON: To choose to go with a minority opinion when it is a small minority is unusual. So I think they chose a path which may have been convenient but it is not based on the best science available.

GELLERMAN: So, if they weren’t listening to their own science advisors, who were they listening to?

YOUNG: Some public health and environmental groups say the real reason EPA did not follow it’s own advisors is because of the Bush administration’s connections to the power industry. Frank O’Donnell is with a group called Clean Air Watch.

O’DONNELL: And a lot of what we’re seeing, I believe, is a reaction to the lobbying by electric power industry which has said we’re gonna clean up a little bit of stuff in the future, but we’re not gonna go as far as those health nuts want us to go. Unfortunately I’m afraid what we’re going to see is a big victory for big polluters, and breathers will suffer a big defeat.

GELLERMAN: So public health groups are really upset. What, if anything, can they do about it? What’s next for them?

YOUNG: This health standard is very important in guiding other decisions down the road on how to clean up soot in the air, so I think we can expect a legal challenge here. Public health groups make it clear they’re already poring over this decision looking for any vulnerable points of attack. And also, because this dispute about science and not following the EPA’s science advisors, I’m sure this is going to be more ammunition for the administration’s critics, who say this administration and this president ignore science when making policy decisions.

GELLERMAN: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Bruce.

 

Links

Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) letter to EPA

American Lung Association study on particulate matter

EPA press release on new standards, with links to background information

 

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