By rushing to finalize this review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter in its waning days, the Trump Administration continues its assault on public health, science, and the work of its own scientists. It is frustrating and disappointing to see this administration prioritize political objectives over sound science-based policies, especially at the expense of the health of Americans. The Trump EPA has been a particularly egregious offender in this area, as the agency has engaged in a broad, multi-faceted effort to ignore, devalue, and undermine the public health benefits of clean air.
Contrary to the express mandates provided in the Clean Air Act, the Agency’s decision not to strengthen public health protections in this rule does not respect the latest scientific knowledge, which strongly supports a more protective standard. The Clean Air Act requires national air quality standards to be set at a level that “protect[s] public health with an adequate margin of safety.” That language accounts for any uncertainty, so the Agency’s argument that “uncertainties” require it to do nothing is empty.
Exposure—both short- and long-term—to fine particulate matter is associated with serious health effects, including decreased lung function, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature mortality, and there is no threshold beneath which there are no such effects. In failing to issue an updated and more protective standard, EPA leadership ignored its own career staff who concluded that a tighter standard (as low as 8 µg/m3) was justified on the scientific evidence, which shows serious harmful impacts at concentrations below the current annual standard level of 12 µg/m3.
Because these standards form the basis for—and drive more health protections from other EPA regulatory program actions to prevent exposure to this dangerous air pollution, this action has significant consequences. Fine particulate matter pollution is of particular concern to communities living near large industrial facilities, transportation hubs, and highways. This presents a serious environmental justice issue, as people living near these sources of fine particles disproportionately tend to be low-income people and persons of color.
The Biden Administration will need to take swift action to pull back this decision and respond with a standard that is based on science and focused on public health and the environment.