Story at a glance

  • Despite evidence that air pollution negatively affects COVID-19 infections, the EPA will not tighten air pollution controls.
  • This is the latest chapter in a tumultuous EPA.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reportedly declined to implement tighter constraints on air pollution standards for fine particulate matter or hazardous particles that linger in the air and can have adverse health effects when inhaled.

ProPublica and the Times-Picayune report that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is expected to double down on this decision against the backdrop of continued COVID-19 transmission, which primarily attacks the body’s respiratory system.

The particulate matter in question is soot, which is emitted from burning wood and coal, oil refining and vehicle engines. The current EPA annual standards limit particulate matter to 12 micrograms per meter, down from a previous 15. 


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The corresponding daily permitted concentrations stand at 35 micrograms per meter.

Some research suggests a link to poor air quality, which tends to contain more particulate matter than average, and deaths related to COVID-19 infections.

Even without a pandemic, environmental advocates supported restricted pollutant emissions into the atmosphere. Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told reporters that particulate matter alone is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“It is responsible for more deaths and sickness than any other air pollutant in the world,” Goldman said.

The Trump administration has previously declined to set stricter air pollution controls, with Wheeler announcing in April 2020 that the limits would not be revised or tightened, despite a letter from the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel that found that the current particulate matter standards “are not protective of public health.”

In a letter dated October 2019, the panel advocated the annual standard of particulate matter be revised down to a range of 10 to 8 micrograms per meter, and the daily limits set at a range of 30 micrograms per meter to 25 micrograms per meter.

Neither recommendation has been implemented, despite the panel explaining tightening these requirements could prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year.

Wheeler reportedly said that he made the decision “after carefully reviewing [the] scientific evidence and consulting with the agency’s independent science advisors,” per an EPA spokesperson. “The U.S. now has some of the lowest fine particulate matter levels in the world, five times below the global average, seven times below Chinese levels, and 20 percent lower than France, Germany and Great Britain.”

Michael Brauer, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia, told reporters that the standards set and recommended are “based on protection of human health” rather than other countries. Furthermore, there is ample literature documenting the health effects when air pollution is lower than the current regulation.

The EPA has appeared to be in consistent turmoil over the past few years, with scientists and researchers leaving or being disbanded as the agency moves in a different policy direction. 

Recent decisions made by the EPA have shaken the environmental science community enough to prompt former administrator Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, to denounce the EPA’s current direction.

“I've never seen an administration that actually seems to me to have a war against the environment and a war on science,” Todd Whitman said in a call with reporters in September.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has a very simple mission. It's to protect human health in the environment. This administration seems determined not only to do away with it but to turn its back aggressively on that mandate,” she continued.


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Published on Oct 21, 2020