Members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) met for a public hearing in late March to discuss the public health dangers—or lack thereof—caused by air pollution. This comes after the EPA disbanded its subcommittee called the Particulate Matter Review Panel last year, a subcommittee which was responsible for determining how much air pollution is safe for breathing. Now, led by Chair Tony Cox, members of the EPA are dismissing the long-established consensus that air polluted with soot can cause an early death, and are calling for weaker regulation of soot.
“[Committee] members have varying opinions on the adequacy of the evidence supporting the EPA’s conclusion that there is a causal relationship between [particulate matter] exposure and mortality,” said Cox. He then admitted that he himself is dismayed by the lack of scientific evidence on the subject.
The EPA currently assesses a wide range of scientific research in order to establish its air pollution regulations including many different types of air pollution, as well as health outcomes outside of premature death, such as asthma.
“Every time you try to assess the link between exposure to a contaminant and health, you have to make sure there is consistency in the evidence across many, many studies, across many disciplines,” said Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. These disciplines include atmospheric chemistry, toxicology, epidemiology and exposure and data science, to name just a few.
Despite decades of research that says otherwise, Cox and others are concerned that the current process inflates the scientific certainty around air pollution; they operate under the belief that air pollution shouldn’t be reduced until it is proven without a doubt that it will lessen the number of premature deaths. The problem is that Cox’s new recommendations fan the flames of doubt themselves. Cox’s recommendations aim to limit the scientific resources used to determine safe air pollution limits in the United States by setting up more and more restrictions on which types of studies can be considered during the regulatory process.
Other scientists, however, are now worried that if the EPA adopts the suggested recommendations, it could be a step towards the mistrust of all valuable scientific research.
“It’s kind of like the same issues that came up with tobacco denial of health effects or denial of climate change health effects,” said H. Christopher Frey, a former chair of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and member of the now-disbanded particulate matter review board. “There’s a very small community that have scientific credentials but are moving outside their area of expertise to try to raise doubt after doubt after doubt on issues where they really don’t have the strongest competence.”
Despite the actions taken by the EPA at this time, more people than ever are speaking up about the health effects of climate change. Cheryl Holder, a professor of medicine at Florida International University and the founder of a coalition of health professionals called Florida Clinicians for Climate Action (FCCA), is one of those people.
Holder takes climate change into consideration when working with her patients, and hopes that as a physician she can give a voice to those directly affected by climate change, perhaps a voice loud enough to be heard by the politicians who aren’t yet focused on their constituents’ health.
For example, experts say that nearly half the days of the year in Florida will be “dangerously hot” by 2050, with heath and humidity making it feel like over 105 degrees. These rising temperatures will be accompanied by mosquito-borne illnesses, more cases of asthma due to longer allergy seasons, and higher risks of dehydration and kidney disease. People who cannot afford air conditioning will suffer most of all, as high nighttime temperatures can lead to heat-related illness and death when the body is unable to recover from daytime heat.
“The burden will fall on the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, children, and pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and those with fewer resources,” says the FCCA’s founding document. “Ironically the people who are most economically vulnerable have typically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions.”