Earlier this month, the acting chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disbanded a panel of experts charged with reviewing microscopic airborne pollutants known to cause respiratory disease, The New York Times first reported.
The Particulate Matter Review Panel was made up of 20 scientists and fell under the umbrella of the EPA’s seven-person Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which is legally obligated to update six air standards every five years under the Clean Air Act: carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead and ozone. The EPA said in an announcement that the seven-person committee will from now on conduct reviews of the federal air standards, effectively disbanding the 20-person panel.
The move is unnerving to Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD, dean of Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, and former chair of CASAC from 2014 to 2017. Diez Roux was also supposed to chair the Particulate Matter Review Panel, but she was rotated off after her CASAC term ended.
“A seven-member panel just doesn’t have the expertise that these review panels have,” she said in an Oct. 15 Popular Science story about the decision. “Having these panels of experts is how we as a society can ensure that we are objectively evaluating the scientific evidence and using it to establish standards necessary to protect public health.”
Particulate matter are teeny, tiny particles in the atmosphere — like dust, pollen and smoke — that come from a variety of sources and can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. Once inhaled, these particles can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as other serious health conditions.
The EPA’s scientific expert panels are responsible for producing detailed assessments of available scientific evidence and presenting their recommendations to the agency. A 2017 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine points to several examples of how scientific evidence has historically guided federal regulations to benefit public health. For instance, since the passage of the Clean Air Act, there has been a 70 percent reduction in emissions of criteria air pollutants, despite a 50 percent increase in the U.S. population.
Diez Roux believes that the end of the Particulate Matter Review Panel could signal a troubling turn for the country’s health, especially since the CASAC is currently going through a shakeup, and its new members do not necessarily have the specific epidemiological expertise or experience to handle a new workload.
“The fact that this is being dismantled in a number of different ways is very, very worrisome and could have major implications for public health in this country,” she said in an Oct. 12 Earther story.
Diez Roux said she also worries that the move is part of a larger pattern within the Trump Administration to censor scientific evidence. Last fall, for example, the Administration made the decision to block scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s advisory panels.
“This has been part of a strategy to systematically reduce the input of scientists into the policy-making process at the EPA,” she said in an interview for the Drexel News Blog.
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