Trump officials reject stricter air quality standards, despite link between air pollution, coronavirus risks
The "link" they refer to is this study ("Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States")
What the study actually found was that number of hospital beds was the chief predictor of Coronavirus deaths: "This suggests that number of hospital beds is a strong confounder". Getting hospital treatment helps you to survive. That finding should surprise nobody.
So when the effect of hospital beds is allowed for, the correlation between Coronavirus deaths per million and level of PM2.5 in the air shrinks to negligibility, in line with other studies of PM2.5 effects.
The existing research on particulate air pollution (PM2.5.)shows effects that range between no effect and effects that are so weak that no confidence can be placed in them. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here
Wheeler was right to ignore the study
The Trump administration opted Tuesday not to set stricter national air quality standards, despite a growing body of scientific evidence linking air pollution to lethal outcomes from respiratory diseases such as covid-19.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Tuesday that the agency would maintain the current standards for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot, the country’s most widespread deadly pollutant.
The EPA’s staff scientists recommended lowering the annual particulate matter standard to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter in a draft report last year, citing estimates that reducing the limit to 9 could save roughly 12,200 lives a year. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) was split on the question, with some members calling for tighter standards and others saying the current one is sufficient.
“The United States has some of the cleanest air in the world, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Wheeler told reporters in a phone call. “We believe the current standard is protective of public health.”
Soot comes from smokestacks, vehicles, industrial operations, incinerators and burning wood. The current standards limit annual concentrations to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air and daily concentrations to 35 per cubic meter. These fine particles enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation that can lead to asthma, heart attacks and other illnesses.
Poor and minority communities in the United States tend to be exposed to greater air pollution, including soot, because they often live closer to highways or industrial facilities. A 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that on average, communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.
This long-term exposure has increased the risks Americans of color face when it comes to heart and respiratory illness, including covid-19, which is disproportionately killing African Americans.
The decision regarding particulate matter is the administration’s latest effort to ease industrial regulation. In recent weeks, the White House has rolled back automobile emissions standards, despite projections that it would increase premature deaths. Citing the national emergency sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, the EPA has stopped policing pollution from factories and power plants for an indefinite period. And the agency has weakened emissions limits for coal-burning plants.
But several big business groups in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute, cheered the administration for retaining the existing standards, with both noting that annual concentrations of fine particulate matter are down by 39 percent since 2000. Most areas of the country have now met the annual standards, with the exception of spots including Southern and Central California and parts of Pennsylvania and Idaho.
“We think this strikes the right balance,” said API’s Frank Macchiarola.
Wheeler cited “uncertainties” in existing studies about the impact of lower particulate matter on human health, and the fact that the EPA’s advisory panel was split, as reasons to retain the current pollution limits.
But some scientists say even a slight shift in pollution levels, either up or down, can impact the health of those most vulnerable to respiratory problems.
One study published this month from researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that even a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution causes a large increase in the risk of dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The study, which examined 3,080 U.S. counties, found that an increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution of just one microgram per cubic meter is associated with a 15 percent greater likelihood of dying of covid-19. This stark difference may be explained by the lung damage such pollution causes over time.
“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” the study’s authors wrote.
“If you’re breathing polluted air and your lungs are inflamed by the disease, you’re going to get very, very sick,” a senior author of the study, Harvard biostatistician Francesca Dominici, told The Washington Post last week.
Wheeler said that while the findings were “interesting,” it was “premature” to draw conclusions. “We look forward to reviewing the Harvard study once it’s completed and peer reviewed,” he said.