Nature, una delle più prestigiose riviste scientifiche al mondo, pubblica nell’ultimo numero un articolo a firma di Jeff Tollefson in cui denuncia un attacco, lo definisce un “assedio”, da parte della politica contro i limiti fissati e da non superare per mantenere una qualità dell’aria respirabile e che non produca malattie e morte. L’amministrazione Trump vorrebbe, entro la fine del 2020 e cioè prima della scadenza del mandato dell’attuale Presidente Usa, alzare i limiti in modo che il maggiore inquinamento dell’aria sia legalmente accettabile. E’ uno schiaffo alla ricerca, alla scienza e alla salute pubblica, tutte cose che, come i cambiamenti climatici e relativo riscaldamento globale, non interessano a chi sta dalla parte dei petrolieri e degli inquinatori.
A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top adviser to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.
The national air quality standards are designed to limit the amount of six widespread pollutants — including airborne particles and ozone — that are present in the air that people breathe. State and local governments must develop plans to curb pollution in areas that do not meet the standards. The EPA must review the science, and if necessary, revise the standard for each pollutant every five years, though in practice the process often takes longer.
The current review started in 2015, and various delays pushed the deadline back to 2022. But former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced early last year that the agency would push to complete its review and revision by December 2020. In order to meet that deadline, the EPA will have to curtail their normal review and revision process. In October 2018, the agency also dismantled a scientific advisory panel that works in parallel with the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which advises officials on air-quality standards.
The latest development came on 28 March, when CASAC met to discuss a draft letter they had released several weeks earlier, which blasted agency scientists for relying on “subjective judgments” and “unverifiable opinions” in their evaluation of particulate pollution research. The head of CASAC, Tony Cox, is a statistician who has long questioned the evidence linking fine particulate pollution to premature deaths, and the draft letter reflects this scepticism.
The draft letter called on the EPA to do another research assessment looking at the uncertainties and inconsistencies in the scientific literature on air pollution. It said that the agency should include all relevant studies, including some authored by Cox, some of which were funded by industry groups.
The full committee removed much of the most controversial language during their 28 March meeting. But CASAC members remained divided on the link between fine particle pollution and premature death. The final text of the letter will reflect that division.
Nevertheless, the debate between CASAC members over the link between particulate pollution and public health has alarmed agency scientists, academics and environmental groups.
“They are just completely dismissing the science,” says Gretchen Goldman, an environmental engineer in Washington DC who tracks the issue for the Union of Concerned Scientists. She co-wrote a guest editorial1 published on 21 March in Science urging the EPA not to abandon the scientific evidence on air pollution. “Without independent science, we risk having public-health decisions made for political reasons,” she says.
The benefits of preventing premature deaths from particulate pollution are also baked into other air pollution regulations, such as those targeting mercury and greenhouse gases. So downplaying the public-health impacts of particle pollution could help the Trump administration to roll back an array of environmental regulations, says Goldman.
Cox defended his views in an email to Nature. The EPA process for reviewing air-quality standards is focused on “eliciting, synthesizing, and documenting the opinions and judgments” of the agency’s own scientists, which are often based on “ambiguous statistical associations that depended on unverified models and assumptions”, he said. His own research has raised questions about the link between reducing fine-particle pollution and saving lives.
But there is mounting evidence, compiled by a wide range of scientists from around the world, that links pollution to higher death rates. In a 2017 study2 of almost 61 million people, for instance, researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used satellite data and computer models to map out daily pollution levels on a 1-kilometre grid across the United States for 12 years. After controlling for factors including education and income, the scientists found that death rates increased in regions with more fine-particulate pollution and higher levels of ozone, a major component of smog — even if those areas met air-quality standards.