September 29, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

For decades, EPA has relied on panels of outside advisors to help it set air pollution standards that protect public health. Last year, the Trump administration EPA dismissed the Particulate Matter Review Panel, leaving the agency and its primary group of clean air advisors without the expertise they need to thoroughly update air pollution standards. The review panel’s scientists are so committed to their work that they’ve decided to meet — with the support of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) rather than EPA — and provide their crucial advice even without the federal government’s blessing.

Some background: Under the Clean Air Act, EPA must periodically review the science behind the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). To do this, it relies on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which in turn calls on review panels with expertise on specific topics, such as particulate matter and ozone. This structure allows the government to benefit from the knowledge and judgment of a wide range of experts without hiring all of them as regular staff members, and it has allowed our nation to set and strengthen science-based standards that have improved the quality of the air we all breathe.

Protective air pollution standards have been under threat from multiple angles since early in the Trump administration. An awful proposed rule that would sharply restrict the science EPA can consider when regulating would have devastating impacts on many regulations, but is widely believed to be targeted at the “Six Cities” study that undergirds restrictions on particulate pollution. A directive that considers receipt of an EPA grant — but not industry funding — to be a conflict of interest has prevented many of the most qualified experts from providing the agency with advice on air quality and other topics. The agency wants to ignore relevant evidence of health benefits when deciding to regulate air pollutants like mercury. An executive order undermines science-based air pollution protections. And in October 2018, EPA decided to stop using the 20-person Particulate Matter Review Panel.

The CASAC “is legally obligated to provide advice to the administrator about those air quality standards,” noted the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman, but EPA can get rid of the PM panel because such sub-panels aren’t required by law. Following meetings in which they reviewed the agency’s draft Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter, the CASAC wrote to EPA and recommended reappointment of the previous PM panel or one with similar expertise.

Rather than following the CASAC’s advice to reconstitute the PM panel, EPA put out a call for consultants to inform the advisory committee’s work on particulate matter. This move is “inadequate and ill-advised,” writes UCS’s Gretchen Goldman, because the consultants don’t operate in public as the review panel did, and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is cutting agency career staff out of the process and limiting consultants’ opportunities for back-and-forth with the CASAC. It’s also “far too late in the process to start getting only piecemeal science advice on the particulate matter standards,” she warns.

Although EPA has failed to take the necessary steps to obtain appropriate expertise on particulate matter, 20 scientists from the PM review panel will nonetheless provide their valuable input. Exactly one year after their panel’s dissolution (Oct. 10-11, 2019), they’ll convene in the DC area and hold a meeting that’s open to media and the public. The Guardian’s Emily Holden reports:

Christopher Frey, a scientist from North Carolina State University who chaired the group, said at least 21 million Americans live with air that is dirtier than what the government deems acceptable, according to one standard. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting reviews to determine whether those current standards should be tightened or loosened.

Frey argued Trump’s EPA has significantly weakened its science review process.

“As a public service, we can still tap our expertise and develop advice which we will share with EPA,” he said.

The EPA has defended the changes it has made as a drive to encourage consideration of a wider range of viewpoints.

The 20-person panel with Frey will include experts in epidemiology and toxicology, as well as people experienced in clinical experiments with humans.

Goldman provides more details:

Hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the independent panel will come together to do what the EPA has thus far failed to: Conduct a full review of the EPA’s assessment of the science, with a breadth of experts from the most important scientific disciplines. They will deliberate on what we know and don’t know about particulate matter’s link to human health and welfare effects. And importantly, they will discuss the policy question at the heart of it all: Given the current science, what level of pollution will protect public health with an adequate margin of safety—the question that the Clean Air Act mandates EPA to answer and use to set pollution standards.

The panelists have undergone an ethics review to ensure that the panel is independent. In fact, the ethics review is being conducted by the very same (now retired) EPA staff member who cleared the panel’s ethics review before it was disbanded. (Chris Zarba was the EPA Scientific Advisory Board Staff Director until last year and is now working with the Environmental Protection Network). UCS is hosting the meeting, but the panelists’ deliberations will be independent, the panel will publicly report its advice directly to EPA, and panelists are accepting no honoraria for the meeting.  (For the record, UCS doesn’t take positions on ambient air quality standards and criteria, only advocates that independent science advice be followed.)

We will ensure the process tracks as closely as possible to what the EPA should be doing to ensure independent science informs air pollution standards. Contrary to EPA’s plans for its upcoming Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee meeting, we will include a public comment period within the meeting in order to ensure the public has an opportunity to inform the EPA process. The meeting will be held in Washington, DC, will be open the public, and will be livestreamed. Additional meeting details can be found on the event’s website.

Given the Trump administration’s many actions to ignore and suppress evidence on public health issues, this is the kind of bold action we need. Expert advice has helped us turn scientific findings into regulation for decades, and it must continue to play a central role in order to improve our air quality and health.

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