Air Pollution Panel, in Divisive Session, Asks EPA to Reverse Course and Provide Expert Help

Corey Masuco, the principal air pollution engineer for the Jefferson County Health Department. (Source: Hank Black)

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was asked Thursday by a key advisory committee to give it more expert help to review the hundreds of recent scientific studies on the effects of microscopic particles of soot on human mortality.

The action came as a surprise as the deeply divided Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee met Thursday to try to agree on language of a draft report. A majority of the seven-member panel, including Corey Masuco of the Jefferson County Department of Health, agreed it was not large enough and its members did not have enough expertise in epidemiology and some other fields to plow through and adequately assess the large body of research developed since its most recent report. Plus, the committee has a fast-tracked December 2020 deadline.

Masuco, the principal air pollution engineer for the Jefferson County Health Department, did not answer an email asking for comment on the meeting.

The CASAC, as it is called, is chartered under the federal Clean Air Act. It is charged with evaluating evidence and recommending whether EPA should keep or change National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In addition to looking at particulate matter, or soot, it also has the duty to make recommendations on standards for ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog, as well as four other pollutants. 

The tele-meeting last week was scheduled for four hours but ran two hours overtime, largely because of wrangling over whether additional expertise was needed. The EPA administrator last year disbanded a 20-member review panel designed to help CASAC, insisting that the small chartered committee could do the job and do it on a ramped-up timeline.

In an interview with BirminghamWatch, former EPA air science adviser John Bachmann said, “CASAC said, ‘No, we don’t have the expertise.’”

Bachman, a member of a group composed of former EPA officials, the Environmental Protection Network, said, “If the EPA in fact now disagrees with its own advisers, I think the process has come to a crash. It’s broken, if the administrator ignores the advice from CASAC that we don’t have enough people to do this right, he’s going to have a hard time going final on any (air pollution) standards based on a document that doesn’t have an adequate peer review.”

Will Wheeler reconstitute the review panel to help? Bachmann said, “(CASAC Chairman Tony) Cox obviously didn’t want to go that direction, but a majority of the panel clearly did … . So we’ll see what happens.”

More Disagreements on the Committee

The CASAC meeting also was prolonged by infighting over specific wording of the draft and conceptual issues.

Cox and some other members wanted the group to toss out studies that did not provide a direct causal link between air pollution and early death.

That angered others, including Mark Frampton, a lung specialist at Rochester (New York) University Medical Center who is the only academic scientist on the panel. He objected to eliminating those studies because that would have meant disregarding many observational studies in epidemiology and other fields. Those studies look at whether there are associations between pollution and its risk to human health but are constrained by ethical considerations from performing randomized clinical studies on humans to prove bad air affects health.

A mid-March article in the journal Science attacked Cox’s theory. One of its coauthors said,

“You can’t randomize millions (of people) around the world to breathe higher pollution or lower pollution, so we have to rely on observational data… which (are) providing a very robust message that air pollution is harmful to human health.” Francesca Dominici, a Harvard University public health statistician also said, “The EPA has a very well-vetted process called the ‘weight of the evidence.’ This process has been endorsed not only by the EPA but by the National Academy of Sciences.”

Dominici, quoted Friday in E&E News’ Greenwire newsletter, said, “Every time you try to assess the link between exposure to a contaminant and health you have to make sure there is consistency in the evidence across many, many studies, across many disciplines (including atmospheric chemistry, toxicology, epidemiology and exposure, and data science).”

Cox, however, said Thursday, “If we don’t know that X causes Y, then we should say we don’t know.” He said he didn’t want EPA to reduce air pollution standards if it’s not true that fewer premature deaths would result.

Bachmann said Cox’s “basis for dumping these studies is not scientifically sound. He’s recognized as a risk assessor and statistician but he’s not an epidemiologist and certainly not an air pollution epidemiologist. His track record on air pollution studies is that he hasn’t done many, published in not particularly good journals, and has not been cited much, so doesn’t have much influence in the scientific community. It’s kind of crazy for the EPA to turn on a dime for those kind of recommendations.”