By Ali Mirzakhalili
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced the agency’s plan to preserve their weak standards on how much “soot” – or fine particulate matter – can be released into our air. This is a public health failure and the result of ignoring scientific evidence that a stronger standard is needed to prevent more disease and death.
Health impacts associated with high levels of PM2.5 (fine particulates) are documented through thousands of studies, most of which are cited in EPA’s own assessment of current science. Impacts include permanent impaired lung development in children and impaired cardiovascular and lung function in adults and seniors. These impacts are associated with high incidences of asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, nervous system effects, cancer and premature death. Recent studies are finding associations of ambient air pollution and fine particulate air pollution with adverse birth outcomes such as still births and low birth weights, diabetes, and impaired neurodevelopment and cognitive function.
A study published in August 2018 in Environmental Health Perspectives reviewed the extensive environmental health literature and found a significant association of local air pollution with daily deaths in 135 U.S. cities, including Portland. For PM2.5, the study found that for every incremental increase in pollution concentration there was a corresponding and measurable increase in daily deaths, even on days with fine particle levels well below the existing standard. Increased COVID-19 related mortality and morbidity also has been associated with increased particulate matter pollution concentration.
EPA arrived at its final decision by ignoring the latest science and comments from many public health and environmental agencies, including those submitted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority. The federal Clean Air Act requires that EPA set the soot standard at a level necessary to protect public health and allow an adequate margin of safety. Retaining the current standards fails to deliver that objective.
So why did EPA choose this path when the agency’s mission is to improve air quality? One cynical possibility is that tightening the soot standard could make the agency look bad. One way EPA measures success is to count the number of non-attainment areas in the country – those are the areas that fail to meet air quality standards. When standards are strengthened, more areas fall out of attainment. But the real measure of success should be improving air quality. Policy shouldn’t be dictated by the potential for bad optics, but instead should be guided by science and the public interest.
This decision will likely face legal challenges and we urge the incoming administration to reconsider this decision and return EPA to real environmental protections that are supported by science and protect our air and our health.
Ali Mirzakhalili is the administrator of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Program.