By Greg Barnes
It may not sound like a big deal to some that the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off this week on a proposal that would retain federal air quality standards for particulate matter at current levels.
But to Chris Frey, a distinguished professor of environmental engineering at N.C. State University, it’s a huge deal, one that Frey believes could cost thousands of lives.
“By failing to propose a protective standard, what this administration will do is lock in the current standard for some amount of time instead of a more protective standard,” Frey said. “The difference between those two is going to translate into deaths that could have been prevented.”
For years, Frey and other researchers have been conducting science and advocating to lower the standard for the annual average airborne particulate matter from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 10, or even eight.
Freyey said as many as 50,000 Americans a year die from inhaling unhealthy air containing tiny particles and liquid droplets of acids, organic chemicals, metals, dust and other components. Research from the EPA shows that more than 20 million people in the United States live in areas with high levels of fine airborne particles.
Exposure to heavy concentrations of particulate matter can affect the lungs and the heart. According to the EPA, particulates can contribute to premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increased respiratory problems.
Although air pollution has decreased dramatically in the United States since 1980 — emissions of six common air pollutants have declined 67 percent — Frey and others say the percentage is beginning to move back up. Levels in North Carolina remain below the air quality standards, although the Charlotte area is on the borderline.
Now, Frey said, is the time to lower the standard.
But that doesn’t appear likely.
EPA Administrator disbands panel
Frey said he has been studying air pollution for about 30 years. Part of the last decade had been spent as chairman of a 20-member panel of researchers that advised the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee — or CASAC. The committee is tasked with exploring the science behind air pollution and recommending ambient air quality standards to the EPA. The standards are reviewed about every five years.
As Frey sees it, problems arose in 2018, shortly after Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, became the EPA’s administrator.
Without any advance notice, Frey said, Wheeler in October 2018 disbanded his advisory panel, relying instead solely on CASAC for the review of air quality standards. Shortly after that, Wheeler dismissed the majority of the seven CASAC members and replaced them with his own appointees, Frey said.
“They got rid of a lot of leading researchers,” Frey said. “The committee that actually ended up doing this review was largely comprised of people from state agencies who are qualified scientists but they’re not leading-edge researchers.”
The committee chairman also got replaced by what Frey called “an industry consultant with a long track record of, you know, doing paid testimony to protect companies from liability.”
“It was pretty much a reconstituted group to give the administrator kind of the out that he got, which was that the official committee advised him that they didn’t see any basis to make the standard more stringent,” Frey said.
A request to the EPA for comment was not immediately returned.
The official proposal to retain the current standard still has to be put on the Federal Register and then go out for a 60-day public comment period, Frey said. Under law, he said, it will be up to Wheeler to decide whether the proposal becomes the official air quality standard.
“Basically, he’s just relying on his cherry-picked small group of advisers that omits the expertise needed,” Frey said.
An independent panel
Frey said he and other members of his advisory panel tried to head off Wheeler by reconstituting the panel as an independent body. The independent panel reconvened exactly a year after Wheeler disbanded it. Frey said CASAC welcomed the panel back.
“We have people with a lot of diversity of experience and perspectives and so, you know, we could more credibly review the overall body of evidence,” Frey said. “Our committee ran with what’s been a long-accepted approach to looking at what is called the weight of evidence from the whole body of scientific studies. And what Administrator Wheeler’s cherry-picked panel did was they took a strategy of looking at individual studies and then discounting each individual study.
“After they kind of discounted each individual study, they said, ‘OK, well there’s no compelling evidence.’ Every study has strengths and limitations and so that’s why we don’t rely on a single study.”
The independent panel met face-to-face for two days. Afterward, it sent a letter to Wheeler informing him of the panel’s findings.
“The bottom line is, yeah, we found that unanimously and unequivocally the current standards are not adequate to protect public health,” Frey said.