Back to Bad Air: The Trump EPA’s Attack on Science and Our Health

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | May 15, 2018, 2:14 pm EDT
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Most Americans wake up and breathe comfortably every day because we’ve enjoyed decades of strong science-based clean air policies. These policies limit the emissions from cities, cars, factories and more to keep the air clean and free from most harmful air pollutants.

When he was first appointed, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt vowed to bring the agency “back to basics” by focusing on clean air and water. One could be forgiven for assuming this meant he intended to preserve and strengthen America’s air pollution protections. That’s why it’s so jarring to see how severely his actions have undermined them. The Trump Administration’s EPA is working hard to unravel these life-saving protections on multiple fronts. This week, Administrator Pruitt and his air chief, William Wehrum, will testify on the Hill. They should be asked about how these actions bring EPA back to basics and fulfill its mission to protect public health and the environment.

More hazardous air pollutants with MACT rule change

In February, the EPA issued new guidance to weaken a policy that protects us from hazardous air pollutants from major sources like power plants and chemical manufacturing facilities. By repealing the “once in, always in” policy, the administration is allowing major polluters to evade using the maximum achievable control technologies (MACT) that have minimized our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals for years. Under the new guidance, at least 21 states could see increased emissions of pollutants like benzene and hydrochloric acid that can cause certain cancers and respiratory illnesses.

Gutting the science in ambient air pollutant decisions under NAAQS

Moreover, following up on a presidential memo last month, the EPA last week released guidance changing how the agency sets standards for ambient air pollutants like ozone, lead, and carbon monoxide. Together, the presidential memo and EPA guidance chip away at the long-standing science-based process that has effectively and drastically reduced ambient pollution in this country for decades.

Air pollution statistics cartoon

Changes at the EPA mean that the agency may soon have far less independent science feeding into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections.

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are a widely effective program that ensures the government sets standards for protecting clean air, based solely on what’s protective of public health. This has, by and large, allowed science and public health to prevail even in the face of political or commercial pressures. But the Trump administration has now opened the door to upending this process.

While the EPA guidance claims to “differentiate science and policy judgments,” it in fact does the opposite. Under the proposal, the EPA and its science advisors must not solely consider public health (as the law requires) but must elevate consideration of potential adverse impacts from setting a health-based standard, such as economic impacts. The process would be removed from EPA’s Office of Research and Development—where much of the agency’s scientific expertise lies—and the comprehensive document outlining the state of the science on pollutants and health that the administration relies on to make a science-based decision may be combined with a regulatory impact assessment, blurring the distinction between scientific and political judgments. This builds on a presidential memo that limited the kinds of scientific analyses the EPA can use when determining whether states are meeting the standard.

Restricting the science that EPA can use for decisionmaking

To put more salt in the wound, these actions come on the heels of the EPA’s recent, widely opposed, and dangerous, proposal to restrict the science that the agency can use to make rules. This proposal originated as a ploy by the tobacco industry to stave off second-hand smoke rules, and while its effects would be far broader than air pollution policy, protections against pollutants like ozone and particulate matter are clearly its main target.

Dwindling air pollution law enforcement

EPA enforcement of air pollution laws is also down. The agency issued only around half the average number of penalties against polluters in the first year of the Trump administration as in the same period of the past three presidential administrations.

Wrecking EPA’s science advisory committees

As if these things weren’t enough to undermine the EPA’s basic responsibilities, the administration also has worked to gut the agency’s science advisory committees, kicking academic experts off and replacing them with unqualified or deeply conflicted representatives. Industry representation on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, for example, has tripled. The consequence will be far less independent science advice reaching EPA decisionmakers—and fewer checks on Pruitt’s ability to undo rules.

And we have some indications of the administration’s priorities here. In its proposed FY 2019 EPA budget, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt are looking to cut EPA funding that supports scientific research related to clean air by 27 percent.  Such a cut would threaten the ability of the EPA to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, examine the effects of air pollution on public health, and reducing associated risks, and provide models, tools, and technical guidance to states. This clearly signals the administration’s disregard for air quality work at the EPA.

Administrator Pruitt’s biggest scandal

The sum of these policy changes is likely to mean dirtier air for all of us. This increased pollution is especially dangerous for the vulnerable groups who already disproportionately suffer from the harmful effects of air pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases already face health challenges at current air pollution levels; weakening current standards will certainly exacerbate harm for these groups. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which already experience disproportionate impacts from air pollution due to the cumulative impact of being near multiple pollution sources, will also be harmed by these policy changes.

Looking out for public health is supposed to be the “basic” responsibility of the EPA and its administrator.  The most scandalous thing about Scott Pruitt is how he’s abandoned the mission of the agency. If he won’t do the job, the rest of us need to speak up for clean air and the science that helps us protect it. Our lungs depend on it.

Photo: Eltiempo10/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

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  • pbr90

    Americans far too well educated to follow ignorance to power effects of this administration, and its advocates.