In the Trump administration’s latest assault on science in service to industry, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to adopt a new method for projecting the future health risks of air pollution.
It will drastically lower the number of predicted deaths — not by actually prompting cleaner air, but by downplaying the dangers of the current levels of air pollution.
The method officials are planning to use is one experts say isn’t scientifically sound.
This looks like yet another gift to big business at the expense of the environment and Americans’ health.
It’s part of a broader campaign by President Donald Trump’s government to aggressively undo decades of environmental progress.
President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, for example, set regulations designed to nudge utilities to switch from coal to natural gas or renewable energy.
The main goal was to lower greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change. But an important side benefit is that those standards reduced particulate matter in the air.
Microscopic particles put into the air by burning coal can cause a range of health problems, some fatal.
The EPA has set a general safety threshold for the level of particulate matter in the air, but it still assesses health hazards that can occur below that threshold.
Scientists liken it to a speed limit: Even if 65 mph is the legal speed limit, that doesn’t mean deaths don’t occur at lower speeds.
But the new method that Trump’s EPA intends to use would, in effect, pretend just that.
It would operate under the assumption that there are no health hazards at all related to a pollution source that is putting particulate matter into the air at a concentration below the general EPA safety threshold.
That might sound like common sense, but scientists point out that the threshold is merely one guideline for assessing health threats.
As one scientist told The New York Times, “It’s not a hard stop where we can say, ‘Below that, air is safe.’ That would not be supported by the scientific evidence.”
But by arguing exactly that, the Trump administration would give itself cover for further rollbacks of air pollution rules under the premise that once particulate-matter levels drop below that threshold, there’s no reason to push for making it any cleaner.
As currently envisioned, the new method would actually allow for more air pollution while officially predicting fewer deaths from it.
And the EPA plans to use that commonsense-defying method even though it hasn’t been peer-reviewed by scientists.
It’s not intrinsically illegitimate to argue, as industry does, that pollution regulation must be a balance between reasonable safety and viable business activity. But simply pretending that pollution threats aren’t threats isn’t the way to strike that balance.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.