EPA, Following Clean Air Act, Sets Soot Pollution Standards Based on Science

December 14, 2012 | 1:28 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Environmental Protection Agency will revise the air pollution standard for particulate matter today to be in line with the best available science, reports the Washington Post. Particulate matter is the primary component of soot. It is encouraging to see the agency following the Clean Air Act, especially in the face of strong industry pressure to ignore science again.

The law is clear: the Clean Air Act requires air pollution standards to be based solely on the best available science regarding what is protective of health. Other factors, such as costs, can be considered when the standards are implemented. But it is science that should determine what level of pollution is safe for humans.

smokestacks belching soot

Today , the EPA is expected to comply with the Clean Air Act and set a standard for soot pollution that is consistent with current public health science. Photo: Flickr user cylon359

This makes absolute sense. I think it’s reasonable to depend on scientific studies, not the price of beef, to understand what level of cholesterol is safe for my body and what level is not. The same goes for air pollution.

EPA staff scientists determined that a standard between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter would be sufficiently protective of public health. This was consistent with the advice of the agency’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. Today, the EPA is expected to set the standard at 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of political interference in setting the particulate matter standard. The current annual standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter was set in 1997. The Clean Air Act requires the standard to be reviewed every five years. In 2006, the EPA misrepresented and disregarded analysis from its staff scientists in setting a standard that was not protective of public health. Epidemiologist Bart Ostro charged at the time that the agency allowed the White House to insert “last-minute opinions and edits” that “circumvented the entire peer review process.” In February 2009, a court held that the Bush administration particulate matter standards violated the Clean Air Act “in several respects,” and told the agency to follow the science in its 2011 review of the standards.

The Obama White House was accused earlier this year of attempting to water down the particulate matter standard.  Fortunately, it seems that the EPA will stand firm on its original proposal.

It could be that the Obama administration’s backbone is growing stronger now that we’re past the election. Hopefully this means that the administration will side with the science on other issues, too.

The American Lung Association is happy. And so am I. But some industries, and some in Congress, are not.

The House Science Committee yesterday complained that the EPA was being secretive about the data supporting its forthcoming decision. I’m not sure if anyone at the committee knows that the agency has a website, so I’ll save them some time. The Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter is available here. At more than two thousand pages, the report should keep staffers busy for a while.