Chesapeake PSR

Loosening air pollution regulations too great a risk

Climate Change and EnergyTimothy WhitehouseComment

Tighter air pollution regulations are a must to reduce adverse health risks in sensitive populations, argues an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The article, Air Pollution Still Kills (PDF download), outlines the risks to vulnerable populations of Trump-era deregulation of pollutants, especially PM2.5, respirable fine particulate matter shown to cause adverse lung and heart impacts, and other effects, including premature deaths.

New large-scale research, Di et al. 2017 (PDF download)published in NEJM, studied records of nearly 61 million Medicare recipients between 2000 and 2012, and addressed the relationship between various levels of PM2.5 and ozone, measured at the zip code level, and mortality rates. "There was no appreciable level which the risk of death tapered off — and thus no "safe" level of PM2.5," the editorial authors said. 

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projected that Clean Air Act amendments mandating stricter air quality standards would prevent over 230,000 premature deaths by 2020, largely as a result of reductions of PM2.5 levels. But now those amendments are in jeopardy. "The findings of Di et al. stress the need for tighter regulation of air-pollutant levels, including the imposition of stricter limits on levels of PM2.5. Despite compelling data, the Trump administration is moving headlong in the opposite direction," the editorial authors said. The administration has begun a process to dismantle guidelines that would have reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants, as well as withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

Allowing PM2.5 increases by loosening standards on air quality could particularly harm populations most sensitive to air pollution, including children, the elderly, and those with cardiopulmonary disease. Lowering pollution standards poses too great a risk. We cannot let that happen: "[W]e must redouble our commitment to clean air. If such protections lapse, Americans will suffer and we are doomed to repeat history. Do we really want to breathe air that kills us?"

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