EPA Science Panel Casts Doubt On Air Pollution Dangers Some panel members said they don't agree that breathing sooty air can cause premature death. The panel's draft recommendations to the EPA would change how it assesses the dangers of air pollution.

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EPA Science Panel Considering Guidelines That Upend Basic Air Pollution Science

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Scientists have gathered plenty of evidence to show that breathing polluted air is bad for your health, but multiple members of an EPA science advisory panel say they are not entirely convinced. They are considering recommendations that could lead to looser regulations on soot. Here's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The pollution in question is microscopic soot called particulate matter. It gets into the air from car exhaust and smoke, and it's small enough to lodge itself in the nooks and crannies of people's lungs. Francesca Dominici is a biostatistician at Harvard.

FRANCESCA DOMINICI: We know a lot. This issue has been studied now for over 30 years.

HERSHER: Those decades of research have shown that breathing soot makes people sick. It makes it more likely that you'll get respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, that you'll end up in the hospital, that you'll die prematurely. And the way the EPA has determined that is by asking a panel of experts, mostly scientists, to analyze all the research that's out there.

DOMINICI: The EPA has a very well-vetted process that has been going on over the years called the weight of evidence. This is a process that has been endorsed not only by the EPA, but the National Academy of Science.

HERSHER: The system is deceivingly complex because the relationship between air pollution and health is actually hard to study. You can't just run a science experiment on people all over the world.

DOMINICI: You can't randomize millions of subjects around the world to breathe higher pollution and lower pollution. So we have to rely on observational data.

HERSHER: And observational data is messy. It doesn't just have information about pollution. It has all the other things that affect our health - age and weather and income and even our genes. It's hard to figure out what's causing what here, which has led a small minority of statisticians and other researchers to question the consensus that air pollution shortens our lives. And some of those researchers are on the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. One of them is Tony Cox, the committee chair, who was appointed by the Trump administration. He led a public hearing on Thursday about new recommendations the committee is considering.

TONY COX: I look at all this literature. I'm really struck and actually appalled.

HERSHER: In Cox's opinion, there is little or no evidence linking particulate pollution to premature death. He knows it's not a popular one with the public and a lot of other scientists.

COX: This is waving a red flag front of the bull, so I acknowledge that.

HERSHER: Nonetheless, the panel has drafted new science recommendations that would dramatically shrink the number of scientific studies the EPA considers when it's deciding how much air pollution is safe to breathe. Christopher Frey used to have Cox's position as the committee chair.

CHRISTOPHER FREY: You know, if you were doing a story where you would give sort of equal weight to the viewpoints, you would interview him and then you would interview 60 people who don't share his view. And that would represent kind of what the reality is.

HERSHER: Frey was also a longtime member of a larger, 20-person group of experts specific to particulate matter pollution. The Trump administration dissolved that group out of the blue last fall. Frey says their expertise is missing from the smaller committee that's left.

FREY: There are other experts who are much stronger, much better informed, much more aware of the leading edge.

HERSHER: And in a bit of a twist, Cox and the other committee members appeared to agree. At Thursday's meeting, they decided to call on the EPA to reinstate a bigger, more-diverse group of experts who can help review the science as the EPA considers updating rules over the next year. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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