Friday, April 08, 2005

EPA science advisers support tougher air standards for fine particles

This is an item with potentially significant long-term implications. In a little-noticed move, the US EPA’s official science advisers yesterday supported a call by EPA staff scientists who believe the current national air quality standards for fine-particle soot should be made significantly tighter to protect people’s health. The science advisers agreed that the allowable daily amount of fine-particle pollution in the air should be cut by about half. (For those of you interested in numbers, see below.)

If EPA moves forward with the recommendation, that would reduce the death toll caused by fine particle pollution. (EPA has done some preliminary analysis of this issue. Agency scientists have noted that tightening the standard would reduce fine-particle-related deaths in such cities as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.)

Yesterday’s action was only one step in a longer process, but it is an important one: It signifies a growing scientific consensus that the current air quality standards for fine particle soot do not adequately protect public health. (You will recall the current standards were set in 1997, but were delayed for years because of industry lawsuits. They have only recently gone into effect. Meanwhile, scientific evidence has grown regarding the link between fine particles and health damage, particularly to the heart.)

EPA’s in-house scientists earlier recommended that the current standards be made tougher. That call was endorsed last week by 100 prominent air pollution researchers. And now EPA’s official advisers – the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) -- has joined the call. This is all the more remarkable because of the industry connections of some of the CASAC panel’s members. (One of them, for example, works for General Motors Corporation. Another works for the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology.)

Tougher air quality standards eventually would mean more actions would have to be taken to reduce emissions from the sources of fine particles, including diesel engines and coal-burning electric power plants.

So get ready for a bruising lobbying blitz by industry. They fought like heck the last time EPA updated the standards in 1997, and I bet they’ll do it again. Get ready for a lot of visits and calls to the White House by coal, electric power, trucking, diesel engine and auto industries.

Also note this will become a real test for EPA Administrator-designate Steve Johnson: Will he be permitted to make a judgment based on science? Or will political pressure trump sound science? But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s a timetable for the rest of the process:

--the CASAC panel will formally summarize its recommendations to EPA in writing in several weeks. (Put your money that the lobbyists will try to water down the recommendations.)
--EPA will issue a final “staff paper” summary of the issue by June 30.
--EPA is under a consent decree to propose new standards by December 20, and to issue final standards by Sept. 27, 2006.


Here is a crib sheet with some numbers. There are two standards currently. One measures permissible levels of fine particle pollution in a community averaged over 24 hours. A second standard is an allowable annual average.

The current (1997) standards are: 24-hour average: 65 micrograms per cubic meter; annual average: 15 micrograms per cubic meter.

--EPA’s staff scientists made a preliminary recommendation that the standards should be tightened, and offered two options: set an annual standard in the range of 12-14, while lowering the permissible daily level to 35-40, or to make a more severe reduction in the 24-hour standard – to a level of 25-35. [Parenthetical note: reducing the permissible daily level by this much would also reduce permissible annual levels.]

--The 100 air quality scientists last week urged an annual standard in the range of 12-14 and a daily standard of 25-35.

--Yesterday’s the CASAC panel supported an annual standard lowered to 14 coupled with a daily standard in the range of 30-35 [roughly half of the current standard].

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