In its latest effort to manipulate how the human impact of its pro-business policies are perceived, the Trump administration is preparing to throw out decades-old methodology used to determine the danger of air pollution. The EPA will now favor a new method under which it would drastically undercount the number of premature deaths that pollution causes, critics say.
The New York Times reported Monday that as the White House prepares to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) plan, the Trump administration will bolster its case for the regulatory rollback by effectively rescinding the EPA's own estimate that it could lead to 1,400 premature deaths per year.
That estimate was made using a peer-reviewed methodology under which the existence of fine particles of chemicals—also known as particulate matter—in the air were found to be dangerous even if they were below the level considered to be toxic. Under the EPA's new plan, only particulate matter which reaches that level will be considered a public health risk which could lead to premature deaths.
As Lisa Friedman reported in the Times, "The new methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires," allowing the EPA to estimate that the continued operation of coal plants under the ACE plan would not lead to more deaths from respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and other conditions linked to air pollution.
Several decades of research has pointed to fine particulate air pollution being a health hazard even at low concentrations.
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) May 20, 2019
The shift represents a "monumental departure" from the sound science used over several decades, environmental law expert Richard Revesz told the Times.
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"It could be an enormously significant impact," Revesz said. "Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths."
In addition to making the ACE plan easier for the Trump administration to defend, the shift in methodology would make further regulatory rollbacks more likely.
The understanding of particulate matter that scientists at the EPA have held for decades is that even if the existence of particulate matter is under the safety limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, it can still endanger people breathing the air.
"Most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits," reported Friedman. "On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn't mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 miles per hour, or even 25."
The EPA's interest in changing the mathematical calculations it uses to determine whether the air is safe comes just two weeks after the Trump administration revealed plans to raise the poverty line—resulting in fewer Americans officially living in poverty, even though the number of households struggling to afford basic necessities will not change.
The League of Conservation Voters called the EPA's plan to change the public's perception of the dangers of air pollution "on brand" for the Trump administration.
This cynicism and disregard for life is on brand for this administration.@EPA plans to change the way it calculates air pollution risks. This not scientifcally sound method could be used by the Trump admin to defend rollbacks of air pollution rules.https://t.co/62pQMx0rkU
— LCV (@LCVoters) May 20, 2019