Home Energy and Environment I got upset on the way to work this morning. This isn’t...

I got upset on the way to work this morning. This isn’t a normal thing for me.

Breathing particulate pollution is now ok?


by Ronnie Ross, the Democratic candidate for the 27th Senate District.  His website is www.RonnieRoss.com.

I got upset on the way to work this morning, and I want to tell you about it.  This isn’t a normal thing for me; I’m pretty–the SAT word is–equanimous. Some things, however, are liable to get under my skin and produce an immediate reaction. One of these things was a report from NPR this morning titled “EPA Science Panel Considering Guidelines That Upend Basic Air Pollution Science.”

I care deeply about the environment.  And so when I see something that will inevitably lead to not just environmental degradation, but to literal, actual human degradation, most immediately in the form of our health, I get upset.  I think you have to.

So, let me tell you about what the EPA is doing.  There is a long established scientific consensus that air pollution can cause premature death.  It is a scientific consensus because, perhaps obviously, we have robust and persuasive evidence that this is the case: air pollution, in particular soot (aka particle pollution) causes us to die earlier than we otherwise would.  Now, I realize that public health is a tricky thing to study. That is why, for years, the EPA has weighed the evidence in the studies in order to control for variables, externalities, and overall quality. This is what has led to the scientific consensus.

However, last year, the EPA disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel, a group that was focused on studying the impact of particulate pollution. Beyond that dissolution, a recent article in Science details how the EPA has also stopped leaning on economists to help inform its thinking.  Specifically, the EPA’s science advisory board just eliminated the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee.  This has led to the EPA relying on economic analysis that does not take an industry’s environmental effects into account.  This can lead to analysis supporting deregulation because it does not examine or consider the economic benefits derived from something like protecting wetlands.  Similarly, it can also lead to analysis that ignores how emissions can have a negative future economic impact because of climate change or adverse effects on human health.

Both of these recent moves by the EPA were bad enough, and these moves bring us to what I heard on the radio this morning.  When it comes to making recommendations to industry, we are left with the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Yesterday, multiple members of that committee, including its chair, said they do not agree that breathing particulate pollution leads to an early death, upending years of scientific consensus.  Questioning scientific consensus is not a bad thing; it’s often how we make progress. However, these dissenters simply don’t have good data on which to rely. And, there are real stakes here, as their recommendations influence the regulations that are currently in place.

I live in western Loudoun County, and there are many folks in the area currently organizing around the proposed Rockwool plant in West Virginia. Yes, folks are concerned about the formaldehyde and other pollutants that the coal- and gas-fired plant will emit.  More than that, though, is perhaps the fact that the proposed site for the 460,000-square-foot plant sits across the road from an elementary school (While there are rules permitting where a school can be built, no such similar regulations exist for what can be built next to an existing school, at least in terms of pollution.  For a good rundown of the controversy click here.)

Much of the ink devoted to Rockwool–and to pollution in general–has focused on the chemicals and greenhouse gasses that the plant will emit.  Another good amount has been spilt discussing what the plant will do to the views and air and water quality in an area that relies heavily on tourism for its economy.  This is why visitors bureaus and elected officials in Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry have come out against the plant. Even the Leesburg Town Council has come out against the plant.

However, organizing around the plant has also focused on what I have been writing about here: particulate pollution. We have really good data on how particle pollution exacerbates conditions like asthma. However, a new report, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, looks at the correlation between particulate pollution and dementia.  Aptly titled “Hazed and Confused”, it explores how long-term exposure to particle pollution degrades human capital by causing dementia. The study finds:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature. We conclude that regulation of air pollution has greater benefits than previously known, in part because dementia impairs financial decision making. We estimate that the dementia-related benefits of the EPA’s county nonattainment designations exceeded $150 billion. We also find that the effect of PM2.5 on dementia persists below current regulatory thresholds.”

So, to maybe back up for a second, what exactly is particle pollution?  For some really excellent work on it, visit the UnDark. You can find their work on particle pollution here. Basically, it is particles, often emitted from human activity from things that involve burning (smoke stacks, car engines, etc.).  These particles can be smaller than the width of a human hair. We know they contribute to climate change, yes, but folks are just realizing, through rigorous research, how it is a “leading driver” of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.  The most deadly form of particle pollution, MP2.5, is the sixth highest risk factor for death across the world. It contributes to 4 million to 7 million deaths a year. MP2.5 is so deadly because it is small enough to slip past most of our respiratory defenses.

While much of the destruction of particle pollution is in the developing world (look at the interactive from UnDark), as the above study shows, it affects the developed world too.  Current studies report that particle pollution causes about 200,000 deaths a year in the U.S. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest impact has been found amongst racial minorities and lower-income people.

So, where does this leave us?  It leaves us in a position where, if the federal government and the EPA will not lead, then Virginia must.  We must elect representatives who believe in science and facts. Our future and our children’s future depends on it; the stakes are too high to do otherwise.  We have a chance to do so on November 5th, to go to the ballot box and elect folks who are serious-minded when it comes to the environment, conservation, our planet, and our future.  Until then, we must organize around these issues in order to be sure that pro-science and pro-environment candidates are elected. Reach out, find your local candidate, and work for them.  We can do this; we will do this, together.


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