March 9, 2009 The Pump Handle 0Comment

by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

I’m sure it will be years before we have cleaned up all the garbage — literally and figuratively — from the Bush administration’s Environmental “Protection” Agency. The notoriously conservative DC Appeals Court, in a unanimous decision, did its part recently when it declared the Bush EPA’s standards for air particulates “contrary to law and unsupported by adequately reasoned decisionmaking.” The language doesn’t get much stronger than that. Just a few days before the Supremes refused to hear a challenge to a lower court decision striking down Bush EPA mercury standards from coal-fired power plants. That’s how you make clean coal. You redefine dirty to mean clean. But it didn’t work. But back to the soot standards:

The court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its standards for the pollutants, fine particulates, which are linked to premature death from lung cancer and heart disease and to other health problems including asthma.When the agency embraced the standards in 2006, its own scientific staff rejected them as too lax. In Tuesday’s ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the agency “did not adequately explain” why the standards were adequate.


In 2006, agency scientists and almost all the members of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council recommended that the standard for long-term exposure be lowered to 12 to 14 micrograms per cubic meter of air, from 15. But the agency’s administrator at the time, Stephen L. Johnson, said there was “insufficient evidence” linking the particulates to health effects. (Cornelia Dean, New York Times)


Back when I first studied air pollution, the soot levels were very crudely measured, first in terms of “smoke” (air was drawn around a transparent tape and the degree of opacity measured), then in terms of Total Suspended Particulates (measured volumes of air were sucked through filters which were weighed before and after), and now with devices that are able to size the particles and give total mass per cubic meter in the various size ranges. As we have improved our ability to measure air pollution we have learned that some of it is much more harmful. For the last fifteen or more years, in an important series of studies, air pollution epidemiologists have shown good correlations between the small particles (less than 2.5 microns equivalent aerodynamic diameter) and mortality and morbidity on a daily basis from cardiovascular events. There are also good associations with pulmonary disease, as might be expected. So far there seems to be no threshold for these effects. Unfortunately the New York Times reporter seems to have drawn the wrong conclusion from this:

These pollutants are regulated under the Clean Air Act, but there is no generally agreed safe level of exposure. So in some ways, setting standards is a value judgment more than a scientific decision.

There is a great deal of science underpinning the idea that fine particulates less than 2.5 microns are associated with substantial burdens of disease. Since it is not feasible to lower the levels to zero, some standard had to be chosen. Science allows us to estimate the consequences of various levels. True enough, it does not tell us how to value the consequences. But I don’t think it is fair to say that the level is a value judgment just because values come into it. Values always come in to it. There is nothing new here. The way it was phrased made it sound as if science didn’t come in to it.

Meanwhile there is much more “undoing” to do. Some of it will be more difficult. This particular piece of nonsense has already cost too much in avoidable disease and just plain money spent on defending the scientifically (and morally) indefensible. Good riddance to these bastards.

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