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Oil-backed EPA panel member ‘questions’ air pollution science ahead of new guidelines

Members of an Environmental Protection Agency panel “questioned” the well-established link between air pollution and premature death during a recent hearing, and one of those members has drawn criticism in the past for the funding behind his own pollution research.

The EPA is in the process of revising its air pollution standards, and Thursday’s hearing of the seven-person Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee found some members calling established air pollution science into question, NPR reports.

Committee chair Tony Cox and Steven Packham of the Utah Division of Air Quality both disagreed with the long-accepted scientific consensus during the hearing, according to NPR. Cox, whose own research on particulate matter pollution was funded and edited before publication by the American Petroleum Institute, said,

“[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.”

Cox said he was “actually appalled” at the lack of evidence connecting the two. “If we don’t know that X causes Y, then we should say we don’t know,” Cox also said.

NPR writes that Cox “expressed concern that the EPA would move to reduce air pollution under the erroneous assumption that it would result in fewer premature deaths.”

The panel’s drafted recommendations reportedly emphasize that “uncertainty” between pollution and respiratory disease. Scientists, as you might imagine, are not pleased.

“The EPA has a very well-vetted process that has been going on over the years called the weight of the evidence,” Harvard biostatistician Francesca Dominici told NPR. “This is a process that has been endorsed not only by the EPA, but by the National Academy of Sciences, [and] is pretty well accepted by the scientific community.”

The very existence of the debate has proved alarming to many in the scientific community, science journal Nature notes.

“They are just completely dismissing the science,” environmental engineer Gretchen Goldman, told the publication. “Without independent science, we risk having public-health decisions made for political reasons.”

Cox sent an email to Nature defending his views, saying, among other things, that his research questions a connection between fine-particle pollution and mortality. Despite the source of his funding, he maintains he’s not concerned about political consequences.

“My sole motivation and commitment is to uphold and apply good science,” he told Nature.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler disbanded a panel of air pollution experts last October that would have offered support on the subject. NPR notes that “in a surprising development,” the current committee agreed the EPA should either reinstate those experts, or create a new expanded panel to review the recommendations.

The agency seeks to finalize the new guidelines by December 2020.

Electrek’s Take

There’s not much reason to launch into a long, obvious diatribe about why air pollution is bad, to say nothing of the ethical questions surrounding Tony Cox’s research. We will, however, note a recent European Heart Journal report that estimated 8.79 million “excess deaths” worldwide due to ambient air pollution in 2015. That report concluded that transitioning away from fossil fuels would be “a highly effective health promotion intervention.”

At the very least, we’re glad the committee seems to be acknowledging that it needs more help in crafting its guidelines, and we hope it finds some legitimate experts before these guidelines are set. At the very least.

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