EPA staff co-wrote study linking air pollution to death

Source: Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 14, 2018

As EPA rolls back emissions regulations, its own researchers are part of a major study that has found that global air pollution kills far more people than has previously been revealed.

The study, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that fine particulate matter kills almost 9 million people worldwide. That’s more than double a previous estimate from the World Health Organization.

It’s also a higher mortality rate than smoking, which causes about 6.3 million deaths, and slightly less than diet, which causes 10.3 million deaths, according to the study.

“Our estimates are severalfold larger than previous calculations, suggesting that outdoor particulate air pollution is an even more important population health risk factor than previously thought,” the authors wrote.

Two EPA researchers were part of the international team behind the study: Neal Fann of EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Bryan Hubbell of the Office of Research and Development.

The findings come as the Trump EPA works to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy plan. According to the agency’s own findings, the weakening of the regulations, which were designed to reduce the power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions, will cause 1,400 additional deaths annually from air pollution by 2030. The Clean Power Plan, by contrast, would have averted 3,600 deaths.

Fine particulate matter — otherwise known as PM2.5 because it is 2 ½ microns or smaller — can get lodged in the lungs and is linked to deadly health problems, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and respiratory disease. It is chiefly produced by burning fossil fuels, and its primary sources in the United States are vehicles and power plants.

A new study released yesterday by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, found that 47.6 million people in the United States live in an area that fails to meet the health standard for fine particle pollution, about twice the number originally thought (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

The PNAS study shows that although air pollution is particularly dangerous in places like India and China, where it can be 10 times more potent than here, it can also have serious health effects in places like the United States, where levels are relatively low, said Richard Burnett, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist with the Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch of Health Canada.

“Not only are we finding larger effects in relatively low pollution environments like Canada and the United States, but we’re also finding much larger effects in places that have very high pollution,” he said.

“Anything that is going to raise pollution levels and exposure levels,” he added, “is going to increase public health impacts, and that’s one of the clear things that this study has shown, so that even a sort of small degradation of air quality is going to translate into degradation in public health.”

The new study shows that the effects of air pollution on the human body are worse than researchers believed even a short while ago, said C. Arden Pope, one of the co-authors and an air pollution expert at Brigham Young University.

The findings reflect studies conducted around the world, with data from 41 cohorts in 16 countries, according to Pope. The results come even as the United States has reduced some of the worst sources of air pollution, primarily from a reduction in emissions from coal-burning power plants and automobiles and a switch to cleaner fuels, such as natural gas and renewables.

“They make me uncomfortable, too, they’re pretty high,” he said of the results. “There is certainly no evidence from these estimates and from the expanding literature that somehow we’re overestimating the effects of air pollution; in fact we think we might be underestimating it. It just seems like the whole body of evidence is now becoming so compelling and the impact on burden of disease is not trivial, it’s just quite large and larger than what we’ve been estimating.”

This is not the first time this year that EPA staff and funding have helped add to a growing body of research showing the adverse effects of air pollution.

Earlier this year, a study by EPA researchers in the American Journal of Public Health found that poor and minority communities were disproportionately affected by soot and other forms of pollution.

In a study released last month that received agency funding, scientists found that adolescent African-Americans who had asthma, but were receiving treatment, still suffered from reduced lung function when exposed to short-term ozone levels below EPA’s recommended level. Both ozone and fine particles contribute to smoggy city air.

Even as EPA’s own researchers continue to expand the field of study on PM2.5 pollution, critics say the agency is engaged in a multipronged effort that may end up downplaying, or even ignoring, that science.

Before he resigned amid multiple ethics investigations, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt replaced academic scientists on the agency’s Science Advisory Board with industry researchers accused of making light of pollution risks. Some have received funding from the American Petroleum Institute to produce studies used to attack regulations.

At the same time, the agency is weighing a proposed rule that would restrict studies used to craft regulations and that researchers say is tailored to prevent the agency from considering definitive air pollution studies.

Critics have also accused the Trump administration of understating the benefits of pollution regulations (Climatewire, Aug. 6).

In the PNAS study, the authors write that their findings indicate the benefits of reducing PM2.5 pollution are greater than previously realized.

“This approach suggests that the health benefits of reducing PM2.5 are likely much larger than previously assumed, owing to much stronger relationships between air pollution and mortality at higher concentrations,” they wrote. “The implications of this finding are particularly significant for countries with the highest air-pollution concentrations, as the potential health benefits of air-quality improvements in these areas are larger than previously recognized.”