A study released last week in the medical journal the BMJ put into stark relief the deadly toll of ozone pollution. Researchers found cities plagued by this pollution saw 6,000 additional deaths each year. Saving those lives requires regulations that limit the precursors emitted from tailpipes and industrial sources, the researchers said. It’s part of a growing body of evidence showing the need to cut ozone and other types of pollution to protect people’s health.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) hand-picked clean air advisers, however, see things a bit differently. In a meeting last week, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) ended a truncated review of the latest science on ozone pollution with a majority of the members recommending that there was no justification for toughening federal standards (one member, pulmonologist Mark Frampton of the University of Rochester, dissented). In the process, the head of the committee—a former consultant for tobacco and oil firms—cast doubt on the numerous studies showing the risks ozone poses.
That came just two months after a majority of the same panel told the EPA that another clean air standard for particulate matter, the tiny soot particles smaller than the diameter of a human hair that can lodge in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, should stay as is.
The Clean Air Act instructs the EPA to review federal health standards for what are known as “criteria pollutants” every five years. As part of that process, CASAC reviews a thousand-plus-page collection of studies assembled by EPA staff, assessing the state of the science, then issues a recommendation on pollution limits that would protect public health within an “adequate margin of safety.”
Prior to the Trump administration, CASAC was largely comprised of epidemiologists, pulmonologists and other health experts, alongside regulators or representatives from industry. But a Trump administration rule that barred scientists who had received EPA grants from serving on advisory panels reshaped its makeup (a federal judge struck down that policy last week). CASAC now has just one member who is an independent scientist, compared to four who work in regulatory bodies.
Beyond reshuffling its membership, the Trump administration also shortened the typically lengthy CASAC process to meet a deadline to settle the ozone review by the end of 2020, and disbanded auxiliary expert panels that typically offer expertise. In their place, the EPA assembled a group of consultants that a Greenwire investigation showed had industry ties or lacked expert credentials.
Under the Clean Air Act, science is scripture and CASAC’s recommendations guide the EPA’s judgment on clean air policy. Now public health advocates worry that a review led by officials sympathetic to industry concerns could mean less protective health standards for pollutants that the American Lung Association says affect one-third of Americans—and relief for industries that would otherwise have to reduce emissions at a heavy cost.
“It’s really alarming as a scientist to see stronger and stronger evidence about adverse health effects for both of these pollutants,” Vijay Limaye, a health science fellow at Natural Resources Defense Council’s Science Center and a former EPA scientist, told Earther. He added that it appeared to be “an attempt to undermine and muddle the causal issues that have frankly been settled in the science world.”
CASAC is chaired by Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox Jr., a risk analyst and expert in causality, the science that attributes a cause to an effect by minimizing confounding variables. He has consulted for industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and tobacco firm Philip Morris, often using his background to challenge science that supports regulations of industry.
It’s an approach that’s carried to his work at the top of CASAC. During last week’s ozone review, Cox repeatedly questioned whether there was convincing evidence that lowering air pollution to certain levels explained health benefits, or whether other factors like income or geography were at play. For example, Cox pointed to a 2018 study published in the journal Earth and Space Science, which applied causal analysis to pollution data. It found that mortality was associated with higher pollution levels but also geography, age, and other variables. That, he said, showed the difficulty in making a “direct association” between lower pollution and health benefits.
Overall, he said, the compendium of studies from the EPA was “pretty darn thin” and “not trustworthy,” in direct defiance of the overwhelming scientific consensus from decades of pollution research.
Experts say that it’s true that studies can’t link an exact percentage of deaths or health problems to air pollution, but the field is full of convincing evidence of a link. Limaye pointed to a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine study that used Medicare records to show that increases in both particulate matter and ozone were associated with increases in mortality. The study doesn’t tie every—or any—death to pollution increases, but the pool of 61 million patients offers some certainty that, yes, there is a link.
The EPA’s other high-profile regulation due this year deals with particulate matter, or soot. There again, an increasing body of evidence has emerged to show negative health effects at even miniscule levels of exposure to particulate matter; a sweeping health review published last year found that this type of pollution can affect every organ in the body. Concerned that the EPA lacked expertise to analyze the volume of studies that had emerged about particulates, members of the disbanded expert panel that would have advised CASAC gathered this fall in Virginia to hold their own, independent review with support from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Their conclusion? Since the particulate matter standards were set in 2012, new studies presented “clear and compelling scientific evidence” of harm at or below those limits, and retaining the current standard is “not scientifically justifiable.”
Even an EPA draft assessment recommended a lower level to protect public health. Still, CASAC issued a split decision with a majority opting for the current standard, after a testy review that one member said was “so dysfunctional” because of the lack of epidemiological expertise.
Advocates also say the Trump CASAC didn’t do enough to focus special attention on sensitive populations, like children, elderly or outdoor workers. The panel’s recommendations only briefly mentioned those groups and members said a lack of controlled studies on those groups made it difficult to know exactly what harm they face (controlled studies that expose patients to specific levels of pollution aren’t done on sensitive populations for ethical reasons). It was a far cry from the Obama-era CASAC, which explicitly discussed whether standards needed to be tighter for those groups.
“We’re being deprived of the conversation that should be happening,” Gretchen Goldman, research director for UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy, told Earther. “This is a pollutant that affects more than a third of the population, so where we set the standard really matters. And we didn’t have a conversation on all the policy issues that should affect that decision.”
The recommendations will be formally submitted to EPA soon, with a regulatory decision expected by the end of the year. Public health groups—who objected to the 2015 ozone standards set under Obama for being too lax based on CASAC’s advice—fear the CASAC recommendation cements unchanged standards, and could leave them with no legal basis to overturn them.
It’s emblematic of a broad campaign by the administration to limit the role of science in regulation. . The agency is also considering a rule that would require health studies disclose all raw data to be used in decision-making, which would limit the scope of studies considered. Other rollbacks at the EPA and elsewhere have shown little regard for science as well.
Limaye said it all adds up to a review process that is “wholly corrupted” and poised to set the stage for lighter regulations that will leave millions of Americans breathing unhealthy air.
“You can see this unfolding, a transparent attempt to distract everyone from really common sense knowledge,” he said. “It sort of manufactures uncertainty in a place where there is less and less of it.”
Jason Plautz is a writer based in Denver, Colorado.