Do Current Pollution Standards Protect Human Health? Clean Air Panel Will Hear Comments, Review Draft Proposal

A government panel of air pollution experts, including one from the Jefferson County Department of Health, will gather for public meetings in North Carolina later this month to hear comments and review a draft report on whether the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for carbon particles in the air are stringent enough to protect human health.

Politico Pro recently reported that the draft document, the Policy Assessment for Particulate Matter, questions whether the current standard for particulate matter in the air is adequate to protect public health.

Particulate matter, called soot, was found in recent studies to be associated with higher risk of neurological and other health conditions. Direct evidence of one particulate type, called black carbon, was found on the fetal side of placental tissue for the first time in research published last month].

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blames most soot on pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, will be meeting for the first time since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator Agreed Under Pressure to appoint a 12-person panel of outside experts to help the committee weigh the massive amount of scientific literature on the subject produced by industry and academia in the past several years. The CASAC advises the EPA on the adequacy of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for certain pollutants.

That subpanel will be welcome, according to CASAC member Corey Masuca, the health department’s air pollution engineer. Masuca, appointed last year, said “This gives us a very valuable pool of expertise when we’re looking at scientific papers and want more confidence in our train of thought. They can provide a broader base of scientific analysis and opinion to our small group.”

The nonmember group has been criticized by environmentalists for including several experts with industry ties who could be affected by any stronger standards for particulate matter. That includes John Jansen, who retired in 2016 from Southern Company Services, the parent organization of Alabama Power Company. Since then Jansen has consulted for industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Appointment of the outside advisers apparently was a compromise on the part of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. The EPA had disbanded a long-standing, larger advisory panel a year ago, saying it was not needed. But CASAC members voted this summer to ask Wheeler to give them some help, particularly in areas where they had no expertise, such as epidemiology and biostatistics. The new group was appointed in September.

In a first, 20 of the scientific advisory panel that had been dismissed convened as an independent, parallel group Oct. 10-11 to provide its own review of the latest draft analysis on which CASAC is slated to advise. The committee is backed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. One member, former CASAC Chairman Christopher Frey, said he was hopeful that Wheeler will consider its recommendations, as reported by E&E News newsletter last week.

Masuca, echoing official EPA statements about the unofficial group, said, “Their comments will be taken into consideration just like any other public comments would.”

The public meeting and teleconference will be held in Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle on Oct. 22. Information on providing comments can be found here.

CASAC will reconvene Oct. 24-25 to review one of the final draft documents in its lengthy march toward issuing a formal recommendation next year to the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. CASAC is strictly an advisory asset for the EPA; Wheeler does not have to accept its recommendation.

Particulate matter, or soot, includes PM 2.5 and PM 10, referring to their size in microns. PM 2.5 is small enough to enter the bloodstream when breathed deeply into the lungs. According to the EPA, the air pollutants may cause premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing.