Do Particulates Matter?

Is the Environmental Protection Agency in retreat? Or is it merely engaging in political spin-control? The agency’s announcement that it would ask a federal court to extend the public comment period for its proposed rules governing tiny dust and bacteria particles — which the agency claims pose a significant threat to public health — clearly results from a public backlash against a hurried process designed to shut out the public and stifle a serious debate over the merits of EPA’s new rule.

The EPA’s proposed standard seeks to eliminate particulate matter (PM) down to 2.5 microns — particles so small that 28 of them would fit on the width of a strand of hair. The entire EPA approach to the proposed rule made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the average citizen to be involved in the process. The proposed regulation was released the day before Thanksgiving, when most people were focused on spending the holidays with their families and friends. It was on the Friday before New Year’s eve that the EPA announced which four hearings the public could attend and offer comment on the proposed rule. If you wanted to testify at a hearing, you had just seven days to sign up. Because notice of the hearings appeared solely in the Federal Register, only those average citizens who read that publication over Christmas would have had an opportunity to study the rule and prepare thoughtful comments in time.

In backtracking from its original approach, one anonymous EPA official, according to the Washington Post, claims that the agency believes “that the American people deserve an open and honest debate on this issue.” These are the right goals, but the agency’s last- minute embrace of openness and honesty smacks more of damage control than sincere intent.

What was the big hurry? If implemented, the PM rule would dramatically impact the jobs and lifestyles of most Americans, forcing everything from mandated carpools to bans on fireplaces, lawnmowers and backyard grills. Even fireworks on the Fourth of July could become a thing of the past. The stringent PM standard would also force many new regions and localities into permanent “non-attainment” status, a regulatory pox affecting everything from federal highway dollars to regional economic development. Because the PM rule would adversely impact just about everyone, the EPA apparently decided to sneak the rule in while everyone else was ringing in the New Year. Once the American public caught on, the EPA’s cynical strategy backfired. That is good. The quality of the air we breathe is a serious issue deserving of a thoughtful public debate based on solid scientific consensus and a careful weighing of costs and benefits.

Of course, EPA Administrator Carol Browner would tell you that the rush to implement the new PM rule is based on concerns over public health. “The question,” says Browner, “isn’t about science, it’s about judgement; it’s about who we’re going to protect.” She now cites thousands of scientific studies linking air-borne particulates to the premature deaths of asthmatic children.

We are hearing a lot about children from the Clinton Administration. It makes for great politics. That’s because everyone wants to protect children. Proposals that could save lives by fighting asthma are worth our attention. The problem is that EPA’s own Clean Air Science Advisory Committee cannot agree on whether or not particulate dust is the real problem, concluding that there is no “adequately articulated scientific basis for making regulatory decisions concerning a particulate matter National Ambient Air Quality Standard.”

Other scientists are even more skeptical. In the January issue of the journal Science, Julian M. Hopkin concludes that increased asthma rates are not linked to increased air pollution or other environmental toxins. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a research arm of the Clinton Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, “the distribution of asthma in other countries also fails to implicate pollution as an aggravating factor. Some of the highest asthma mortality rates occur in Australia and New Zealand, which have excellent air quality.” NIEHS also notes that several studies of air quality and respiratory disease in the U.S. also fail to find a link between asthma and air pollution. In Philadelphia, for example, declining air pollutant levels have been accompanied by a soaring number of asthma deaths.

Reasonable people are beginning to wonder. If the Clinton Administration’s EPA is really interested in saving kids, we all have a common interest in finding real causes to real problems before imposing massive new regulations. Poorly thought-out regulations will only divert scarce resources away from real solutions.

But what has really raised eyebrows is EPA’s unwillingness to release the underlying data used to draft the stringent air quality standards. The EPA went so far as to reject a Freedom of Information Act request for the data by the House Commerce Committee, whose responsibility it is to make sure federal regulations make sense. How on earth can the public comment on EPA’s proposed particulate rule if the agency refuses to release the information that the proposal is supposedly based on? Is this open? Is it honest?

Instead of answers from the EPA, the public gets contradictions. In her February 12th testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Ms. Browner claimed that the American people would still be “free to barbecue,” contradicting an EPA spokesperson who has previously acknowledged that a ban on grilling would be “theoretically possible.” Indeed, commercial barbecues are already outlawed in some southern Californian communities struggling to comply with current EPA rules. Also before the Senate panel, Browner denied that tougher standards would determine “whether we can have fireworks on the Fourth of July,” even though her Agency’s own Science Advisory Committee recently pointed to monitor data from St. Louis specifically implicating a fireworks celebration.

What the public really needs are some straight answers. To that end, Citizens for a Sound Economy has challenged the Sierra Club to a public debate on EPA’s proposed air quality regulations, and they have accepted. Hosted by the League of Women Voters, the debate will be held on February 21 in room 628 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Hopefully, a thoughtful discussion will finally produce some honest answers.

Even with a three week extension of the public comment period granted by a federal court, the rule is still scheduled to go into effect by July 19th. Congressional leaders are asking the EPA for at least 18 more months so that the public has time to study the pros and cons of the new regulations. Likewise, President Clinton should tell his own Administration’s EPA to release the data purportedly backing up the proposed PM rule, and to give Americans the genuinely open and honest debate they deserve.


This piece appeared in The Washington Times, February 19, 1997, page A13, under the title, “Detecting a new drift in air quality rules.”