An X-ray showing the affected lungs from acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which can be triggered by air pollution. Photo: Wikimeda
President Trump’s chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has been hard at work undermining some of our nation’s most important public health safeguards in the guise of “reform.” His talking points omit the fact that these policies, guidelines, and programs have a strong record of protecting us from toxic chemicals and harmful air pollutants. And he’s leveraging the fact that many have obscure sounding names, hoping the public won’t notice that he’s stripping away safeguards at a time when the science on air pollution and health signals the need to strengthen protections for our families and communities.
Let’s dig into the details.
Less MACT means more HAPS
Breaking with more than 20 years of precedence in implementing the Clean Air Act, late last month the EPA reversed long-standing guidance that limits hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) such as the neurotoxins mercury and lead from major sources like power plants and large industrial facilities.
The agency’s new guidance means that major sources of HAPS may no longer be required to employ Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT), which reforms guidance that has been singularly successful in reducing toxic air pollution. Giving polluting facilities that have been employing available MACT technologies for years a way out of that requirement may line pockets of the polluting parties, but it is certainly not in the public interest. This is especially true for environmental justice and low-income communities and for people of color; they are already bearing a disproportionate burden of toxic pollution. Read more about all this here and here.
All eyes on IRIS
The EPA’s chemical risk assessment program—the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)—is the gold standard for chemical toxicity reviews at the federal, state, and local level, and even internationally. Because IRIS provides a scientific basis for regulating chemicals, it has been a target of criticism by the chemical industry, trade groups, and their friends in Congress and the White House. IRIS is at serious risk. Read more here.
And then there’s TSCA
After years of effort and with the bipartisan support that now seems a distant memory, Congress passed legislation in 2016 to update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Enacted 42 years ago, TSCA is a fundamental safeguard meant to protect our nation’s children, families, and communities from the health effects of dangerous chemicals—health effects like cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders.
Two years ago, many public health and environmental leaders cheered this much-needed reform (read more here). But then the Trump administration gave the task of writing new rules to Dr. Nancy Beck, formerly director of regulatory science policy at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s leading lobbying group. Not surprisingly, under her leadership, the agency has rolled out rules that reflect industry-favored positions, despite objections from the EPA’s own scientists and staff, who warned that the new changes could seriously underestimate health risks and make it harder to track and thus regulate dangerous chemicals. Read how and why the agency shifted here.
Pollution control is good for the economy and public health
Contrary to what Mr. Pruitt and the Trump administration say, pollution control is healthy economically. Air quality improvements in high-income countries have not only reduced deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, but have also yielded substantial economic gains. In the US, an estimated $30 in benefits (with a range of $4 – $88) has been returned to the economy for every dollar invested in air pollution control since 1970. Read more here and here.
What the science says—a global look
Given these and other threats to clean air and to the science-based protections that have been established to safeguard public health, it seemed like a good time to take a look at what the latest science says about pollution and health—both globally and here at home.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health provides the most recent, overarching, and in-depth analysis of the health and economic impacts of pollution. Its report covers air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution, as well as occupational pollutants and the emerging threats of developmental neurotoxicants, endocrine disrupters, and pesticides. Its focus is global, but the report includes some country-specific data and information. The report shows that no country is unaffected. And it also notes while that many effects of chemical pollutants are yet to be determined, much is already known.
Quoting directly from the report, here are some of the findings and key takeaways:
- Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today—responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015 alone. That’s three times more deaths than from AIDS, TB, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.
- Pollution disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable. In countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalized.
- Children are at high risk of pollution-related disease and even at extremely low-dose exposure to pollutants during windows of vulnerability in utero and in early infancy, which can result in disease, disability, and death in childhood and across their lifespan.
- Pollution endangers planetary health, destroys ecosystems, and is intimately linked to global climate change. Fuel combustion—fossil fuel combustion in high-income and middle-income countries and burning biomass in low-income countries—accounts for 85 percent of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen. These pollutants cause some serious health effects, like asthma, shortness of breath, wheezing, and other respiratory problems.
- More than 140,000 new chemicals and pesticides have been synthesized since 1950.The 5,000 produced in greatest volume have become widely dispersed in the environment and are responsible for nearly universal human exposure.
- [There is] increasing movement of chemical production to low-income and middle-income counties where public health and environment protections are often scant.
What the science says—a US look
A recent nationwide study of seniors in the US sounds similar alarm bells. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health studied 60 million Americans—nearly 97 percent of people 65 years of age and older—and found that long-term exposure to fine airborne particulates (PM2.5) and ozone increases the risk of premature death. Even at levels below current EPA national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS). And that the “effect was most pronounced among self-identified racial minorities and people with low income.”
Francesca Dominici, principal investigator of the study, commented on the study’s unprecedented statistical power given the massive size of the study population, noting that the “findings suggested that lowering the NAAQS for fine particulate matter will produce important public health benefits, especially among self-identified racial minorities and people of low income.” These findings build on past work that has long showed the effect of long term exposure to particulates on mortality.
A second Harvard study examined short-term exposure to the same pollutants (PM2.5 and ozone) and also found a link to higher premature death among US elders—again with low income, female, and black elders at higher risk. The study found that “Day-to-day changes in fine particulate matter and ozone exposures were significantly associated with higher risk of all-cause mortality at levels below current air quality standards, suggesting that those standards may need to be reevaluated.”
Lead author Qian Di noted that “No matter where you live—in cities, in the suburbs, or in rural areas—as long as you breathe air pollution, you are at risk.” [Can’t resist a shout out to Qian Di, a doctoral student in environmental health—and to other early career scientists who are out there bringing their science to bear on critical matters of public policy, public health, environmental protection, and environmental justice.]
Study co-author Dr. Sara Grineski noted that “We’re only now realizing how toxins don’t just affect the lungs but influence things like emotional development, autism, ADHD, and mental health…” Photo: RuslanDashinsky/iStock
What the science says—a look at our kids
There is robust scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of air pollution on children’s health—from health impacts of fossil fuel combustion (nice summary of research here) to new research on children’s exposure to neurotoxins. Researchers at the University of Utah studied air pollution exposure in nearly 90,000 public schools across the US using EPA and census data. They found that ambient neurotoxins like lead, mercury, and cyanide compounds pose serious risks to children at our public schools.
Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Jersey City, and Camden were among the 10 worst polluted areas. They also found racial disparities, with students attending high risk schools nationwide significantly more likely to be Hispanic, black, or Asian/Pacific Islander. In a lengthy Guardian piece on the research, study co-author Dr. Sara Grineski noted that “We’re only now realizing how toxins don’t just affect the lungs but influence things like emotional development, autism, ADHD, and mental health…“ Socially marginalized populations are getting the worst exposure….“This could well be impacting an entire generation of our society.” Other recent studies and reports of air pollution impacts on children’s health can be found here , here, here, here .
EPA, please follow the science
This new research pretty much puts the kibosh on arguments that our nation’s air is clean enough and that it’s time to “reform” (read weaken) current policies, guidelines, and programs.
The science is clear—this is not the time to roll back efforts to control pollution, to squelch reviews and assessments of environmental chemicals, and to otherwise defund and de-staff critical public health protection programs at the agency. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment; this means putting the public interest first. In his goal to remake the EPA, we can’t let Mr. Pruitt sideline science and put our public health at risk.
Here at UCS we are doing our best to monitor and fight back against attacks on science and on the science-based policies that protect our public health and safety. Many partner organizations—from large national organizations to small grassroots groups and organizers fighting for environmental justice—are doing the same.
You can help by speaking out to elected officials in Congress, to your regional EPA office, and directly to Mr. Pruitt. He needs to understand that our public health is his priority, not easing industry’s path to higher profits. Join us as a science champion; we provide information and other resources to help you engage in this effort.