The nation remains under siege by the coronavirus, which is, as we know, a deadly respiratory and vascular disease. So naturally, the Trump administration thought this would be the perfect time to reject science-based restrictions on a deadly air pollutant known for lodging itself deep in the lungs and infiltrating the bloodstream.
In 2019, the EPA’s own staff scientists said tightening the standard would save roughly 12,200 lives annually.
On Monday, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency made its latest Big Tobacco-like move in the war on public health when it declined to raise air quality standards for fine particulate matter. The decision flies in the face of mounting scientific evidence that air pollution is worsening the pandemic — not just by exacerbating the severity of Covid-19 symptoms, but by transporting the virus at greater distances through the air.
Public health experts have been recommending that the EPA further restrict air pollution for years. Specifically, they’ve recommended reducing fine particulates, tiny dust specks about one-thirtieth the size of a human hair that make up about 90 percent of all U.S. air pollution. These specks are well known for triggering asthma, heart problems and about 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S.
In 2019, the EPA’s own staff scientists agreed, and said tightening the standard would save roughly 12,200 lives annually. But EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said Monday that none of this evidence is enough to justify reducing pollution. “Every scientist can take a look at this and reach a different conclusion,” he said. His conclusion is that there are still “uncertainties in the evidence for adverse health effects” from the current pollution regulations.
For decades, the tobacco industry cited “uncertainty” in the science to deny the dangers of secondhand smoke and delay public health regulations.
This is a stunning rejection of modern air-pollution science, which for decades has operated under a consensus that there is no safe level of fine particle exposure for Americans. But it also represents a common rhetorical tactic among those who want to reject scientific evidence about the dangers of a pollutant or product in order to continue producing it. This tactic exploits the language of “scientific uncertainty” — which exists in the discussion of every single scientific topic, even gravity — in order to convince the public that we just don’t know enough to act.
For decades, the tobacco industry cited “uncertainty” in the science to deny the dangers of secondhand smoke and delay public health regulations. At the same time, corporations tried to prevent more evidence from coming forward. One way they did this was by pushing for scientific “transparency” rules, which would prohibit the government from using research based on confidential human health data. Spoiler alert: All of the research that shows smoking harms human health is based on confidential human health data.
The EPA has been doing the exact same thing for the last four years when it comes to air pollution. Not only has Wheeler misleadingly claimed “uncertainty” in air pollution science to justify deregulating polluters, he’s also pushed for rules that would limit the type of science the EPA can use to justify pollution regulations. In addition, Wheeler’s EPA has systematically neglected the U.S. air pollution monitoring network, “leaving tens of millions of Americans vulnerable to undetected bad air quality from events like wildfires to industrial pollution,” according to a recent Reuters investigation.
This Big Tobacco-approach isn’t limited to air pollution, either. Denial and suppression of scientific evidence is central to Trump’s response to climate change, and it’s central to his response to the coronavirus. Indeed, when Trump leaves office in 42 days, his legacy will not just have been that he presided over the rollback of more than 125 climate and environmental policies. It will be that he cemented Big Tobacco-style science denial as the backbone of Republican public health policy.
The effect of this legacy is not just that people will get sick and die. It’s that people will get sick or die, and their loved ones will not be able to seek redress, because there will never be sufficient evidence of their suffering. Perhaps that’s what society wants: to remain blind to their problems, to have leaders who tell them everything is fine. Ignorance may be bliss. But it is also short-lived.