As the nation faces a growing crisis from a pandemic respiratory illness, it’s worth appreciating a past public health triumph that has made it safer to breathe in our region and many other parts of the country: The air has gotten substantially cleaner over the past 25 years.
We owe it to policy based on sound science — something sorely lacking from the White House during the coronavirus crisis but also much more broadly in the Trump administration. Since the 1990s, restrictions on the tiny particles that can be emitted from car tailpipes and industrial smokestacks have helped to lower the prevalence of respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease. And research indicates public health would improve further, especially in poorer neighborhoods, if the regulations were made even more stringent.
The Trump administration is trying very hard to halt — or even reverse — such progress. And what’s especially dangerous is the way it’s happening. Making a mockery of the very name of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, the head of Trump’s EPA, is attacking the scientific process that has informed air-quality rules. If he isn’t stopped, it will become easier for the federal government to ignore evidence about how pollution harms our health when making policy. He could even make it harder for Trump’s successor to base environmental regulations on scientific evidence.
It’s clear that particulates in the air cause not just smog but also ill health. Combustion and other chemical reactions inside factories, power plants, and car engines commonly spew out metal, acid, dust, and other byproducts in droplets that are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. That’s about one-third the size of a red blood cell, small enough to get deep into your lungs, where these particles cause inflammation that leads to disease.
The federal government began limiting particulates in the air in the 1970s, but restrictions on the dangerous particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, only took hold in the 1990s. Some of the most convincing evidence of the tiny particles’ danger came from Harvard research known as the “Six Cities” study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. By painstakingly analyzing pollution data and medical records of more than 8,000 people in Watertown and five cities elsewhere in the country, the researchers determined that people who had cleaner air were living, on average, about two years longer.
Many other studies have reached similar conclusions. The average amount of PM2.5 in the air nationwide fell 39 percent from 2000 to 2018, and the EPA has determined that such improvements prevent more than a million asthma attacks, 100,000 hospital admissions, and 200,000 deaths every year. The agency also has found that the economic benefits of a healthier population far outstrip the costs imposed by clean-air regulations.
Nonetheless, opponents of environmental regulations have disingenuously claimed for many years that Six Cities and similar public-health studies are questionable because not all of their underlying data are publicly available. These opponents decry such research as “secret science.”
That term is a misdirection, a tactic from the same playbook that’s been used to sow doubt about secondhand tobacco smoke and global warming. There’s a very good reason studies like Six Cities report only aggregate data and not the raw data from every single study participant: Private health records are confidential under federal law. As further proof of the absurdity of the “secret science” charge, the Six Cities researchers have shared their data with other scientists. One group, funded by the EPA and the auto industry, spent three years reviewing Six Cities and another air-quality study and affirmed the findings.
The Trump administration hopes you won’t realize that. Under the guise of “greater transparency,” former EPA director Scott Pruitt proposed in 2018 that the agency stop considering studies unless their data are fully public. A panel of scientific advisors, many of them appointed by Trump, criticized that proposal, saying it wasn’t clear what problem Pruitt was trying to solve. “Anybody who knows anything about science has been saying this is a bad idea,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Last week, Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, came back with a slightly different version. He proposed that the EPA give greater weight to studies with fully public data. That’s still a bad idea, because it would force the EPA to base decisions not on the best science but on other priorities. There’s no reason to disfavor a public-health study because it relies on some confidential health information — unless your goal is really to undo or block environmental regulations.
If this rule goes through, reversing it would require the same bureaucratic process that EPA leaders have been undertaking to implement it in the first place. That means the rule could linger for years after Trump is gone.
However, this also means there’s still a chance to stop this pernicious plan. When the EPA opens Wheeler’s proposal for public comment, scientists and anyone else who cares about this issue should weigh in. If the EPA fails to address those comments as it finalizes the rule, the change could be vulnerable to a court challenge alleging the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
And then, come November, voters would do well to remember what’s at stake for the health of our planet — and ourselves.
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