Internal government documents obtained by NPR indicate that the Environmental Protection Agency could have saved thousands of lives each year if it set a stricter standard for soot in the air we breathe.
Last month, when EPA administrator Steven Johnson set a new standard for how much soot is safe to breathe, he rejected EPA's scientific advisors recommendation to make it tougher. A draft EPA analysis shows that if he had taken their advice, the stricter standard would have saved about twice as many lives each year.
John Walke from the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council says the documents show how deadly Johnson's decision will be for Americans.
"What these explosive charts reveal is that by refusing to strengthen our air quality protections," Walke said, "EPA's political boss sacrificed the lives of five to 10,000 Americans each year, who will now die from air pollution related strokes and heart and lung disease."
Walke provided the documents to NPR. A Bush administration official confirmed their authenticity.
The documents show estimates of how many lives would be saved by the new soot standard — and how many more would have been saved by the stricter standard recommended by the science advisors.
In estimates from 12 scientists who had been hand=picked by the EPA, all agreed that more lives would be saved if the EPA had chosen a stricter standard. Most of them put that number at more than 4,000.
New York University Medical school professor Morton Lippmann was one of the 12 experts whose opinion was listed. Lippmann said that the decision has serious consequences, because fine particles from power plants, vehicles and factories are lethal.
"You can mention a few other things that affect public health more," Lippmann said, "like cigarette smoking, but you have to get to an issue like that before you get something with more impact than the effect of fine particles on mortality."
Lippmann was also a member of the scientific panel whose advice was originally rejected when EPA announced the new standard. The scientists wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Steven Johnson. According to the letter, the standard "does not provide an adequate margin of safety requisite to protect the public health."
In most cases, the EPA releases analysis of the costs and benefits of a new standard when it announces changes. But in this case, that still has not happened.
Lippman says that the EPA seemed to go out of its way to ignore the strong message scientists were sending — and to make it hard for the public to see just how strong that message was.
"There's very little doubt that it's not only inappropriate to ignore the evidence readily at hand," Lippmann said, "but it doesn't seem to be consistent with past practice either."
EPA officials declined to speak on the record. In a statement, EPA press secretary Jennifer Wood did not comment on the internal documents. She said that the soot standard is the most protective in history. And she said EPA officials still are working on an analysis of the risks and benefits of the new standard.