EPA, Advisers Differ on Fine-Particle Regulations

Scientists advising the Environmental Protection Agency have recommended that the agency impose stricter limits on fine particles borne by burning fuel in vehicles, power plants and factories. However, the EPA's actual revision of the rules disappointed scientists and public health advocates.

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Some of the deadliest air pollutants that Americans encounter every day are called fine particles. They come from burning fuel in vehicles, power plants and factories. Today, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson is proposing to tighten air quality standards for fine particles, but his scientific advisers say he's rejecting their advice. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

For 50 years, Rogene Henderson has been researching how air pollution affects people's health. She chairs the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board. Recently, that panel took a close look at whether the government's current annual standard for fine particle pollution is tough enough. The scientists analyzed a mounting body of science that links fine particles to heart disease, stroke and respiratory failure. They decided the standards weren't strict enough.

Ms. ROGENE HENDERSON (Chairwoman, EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board): Because of more recent epidemiology studies that suggested that cities that were already in compliance with the current standard and those cities, there were still associations with premature mortalities.

SHOGREN: People exposed to levels of pollution the EPA said should be safe still died early. In May, Henderson's panel advised the EPA to tighten both its annual and daily standards for fine particles, but EPA administrator Stephen Johnson is proposing to change only the daily standard and leave the annual standard where it is now.

Mr. STEPHEN JOHNSON (Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency): The question that I had to ask myself based upon all the information we have available: Is there a clear basis for selecting a lower level than what the current standard is? And in my judgment, there wasn't a clear basis.

SHOGREN: Henderson says she's surprised and disappointed by Johnson's decision.

Ms. HENDERSON: Then he is saying that he as one person is more capable of making the correct decision than 20 highly qualified individuals working together who have heard the public.

SHOGREN: Public health advocates and many other scientists agree.

Professor JOEL SCHWARTZ (Harvard University): What the scientists have been saying about particles is that that decision is going to kill thousands of people per year.

SHOGREN: Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard University, says multiple studies make it clear that if the government made the standard stricter, fewer people would die.

Prof. SCHWARTZ: It's not that the science isn't there. They're just ignoring it.

SHOGREN: EPA administrator Johnson says he expected that the agency's proposal would be very controversial. He says it was based only on studies completed by the year 2002 and he says the agency will consider more recent studies before it makes a final decision in September.

Mr. JOHNSON: This is a proposal and we want the public and want the scientific community to engage.

SHOGREN: There's no question Johnson will get an earful during the public comment period. Some utilities say the current standards already are tough. In fact, many cities do violate current standards and will have to clean up and the science keeps pouring in. Just yesterday, researchers at New York University School of Medicine came out with a new study strengthening the link between fine particles and heart disease. It showed that even at levels within federal standards, fine particles caused hardening, narrowing and clogging of the arteries in lab mice.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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