A federal advisory group recently voted in a split decision against strengthening the current standard for fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5. Corey Masuca, an environmental health scientist with the Jefferson County Department of Health and one of the six members of the panel, sided with the majority.
The 4-2 decision during a contentious meeting of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee last month pitted Masuca and three other members against Environmental Protection Agency scientific staff and an independent panel of scientists.
Those scientists created their own panel after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler dismissed the group earlier this year as advisers to Casac, in a move assailed by clean air advocacy organizations as setting the process up to fail.
The scientific group and scientists who work for EPA had recommended that the PM 2.5 standard be cut by up to one-third of what is now the acceptable level, which they projected would save thousands of people from premature death based on their analysis of studies published in recent years.
The federal Clean Air Act calls for Casac to reexamine standards for particulate matter and five other air pollutants every five years. In the upcoming months, Casac will submit an official version of its report to the EPA administrator, who has sole authority to accept or reject it by the end of 2020.
Masuca, an environmental health scientist, said he did not see sufficient new scientific evidence to warrant lowering the standard.
“There would have to have been significant new scientific evidence for a lower standard, significant additional research that concluded that at a specific lower level negative health effects would be noted,” Masuca said. He is principal air pollution control engineer for the Jefferson County Health Department.
The Casac majority voted to advise Wheeler to maintain the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter (12.0 ?g/m3). Two other members voted for lowering the PM 2.5 level, as EPA staff proposed, to between 9.0 and 11.0 ?g/m3.
Michael Hansen, executive director of the nonprofit, clean air advocacy group Gasp, said: “I won’t question (Masuca’s) integrity. I absolutely do question his judgment in not voting to strengthen the PM standard.”
Hansen noted that the American Lung Association earlier this year listed Birmingham in the top 15 cities for year-around particle pollution. The EPA considers the city to be in compliance with the current standard, according to the health department, the agency that regulates air pollution in the county.
He said Casac, in rejecting the call from many scientists to strengthen the particulate standard, failed its “duty to protect public health (and) save thousands of lives in the United States.”
A study published in October by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found PM 2.5 emissions from transportation, industry, agriculture and other sectors of the economy increased by 5% between 2016 and 2018, causing 9,700 additional premature deaths and representing damages of $89 billion. The study said the increase was likely due to increased use of natural gas and fossil-fuel powered vehicles, a rise in wildfires and lower enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
And in a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that virtually every death from conditions linked to particulate matter occur in people exposed to levels below the EPA current standard. For a long time, scientists have associated PM 2.5 pollution with cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, type 2 diabetes, lung cancer and pneumonia. But now they have identified three more conditions: chronic kidney disease, hypertension and dementia.
One of the two Casac members who voted to reduce the particulate matter standard, pulmonary physician Mark Frampton of the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the process had been weakened because Wheeler had dismissed the panel of 20-plus scientists who traditionally provide advice to Casac. Casac members do not have a broad range of scientific expertise and none specializes in epidemiology, the discipline that produces the bulk of studies on the health effects of pollution.
“The review process is so dysfunctional that we need to stop,” Frampton told the group, although he agreed to continue to participate under protest.
After Wheeler dismissed Casac’s advisory committee, it reconstituted itself as an independent panel, reviewed studies from the past five years and submitted comments to Casac that recommended a standard of 8.0 to 10.0 12.0 ?g/m3.
Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Center for Science and Democracy said the changes affecting Casac’s expertise weakened the role of science advice at the agency, according to C&E News, which covers the fields of chemistry and engineering. Goldman said the EPA set Casac “up to fail.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists paid travel expenses for the independent panel to gather in a public meeting just before Casac met last month.
“It is unusual for the Casac to fail to reach (a unanimous decision) on its final advice on an air quality standard, a former Casac chair told the publication. Christopher Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University who chaired the independent panel, also called it unusual for Casac “to offer advice that is less protective than that supported by the scientific evidence.”