Would EPA's chief rather redefine "healthy" smog levels than listen to his scientists?

Keith Gaby

When Scott Pruitt was trying to get confirmed as chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he conceded that “ground-level ozone is a dangerous pollutant that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm.” The EPA, he told senators, should focus on helping polluted areas “meet that standard.”

Except now that Pruitt is in office, it turns out his meaning might have been far more Orwellian, and dangerous, than anyone imagined. Meanwhile, a new court decision allowing Pruitt an opportunity to argue his case has added fresh urgency to the ozone matter.

25 million Americans at risk

The ground-level ozone Pruitt was talking about is better known as smog and causes serious health problems.

Smog increases asthma attacks in kids and literally kills people, especially the elderly. In fact, it is estimated more than 25 million Americans have asthma and are at risk for health problems or premature death because of this kind of air pollution.

In response to growing scientific evidence of harm, the EPA tightened its health standards for smog. The change, announced in October 2015, would lower the allowable amount of smog particles in our air from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb.

This still isn’t as low as many science and health advisors recommended, however. They want something closer to 60ppb – but it was an important step in the right direction.

This is also important to remember as we try to understand where Pruitt may be taking us next.

To Pruitt, science is irrelevant

During his confirmation hearings, Pruitt sounded very concerned about this air pollution problem. He cited it as one of the areas that the EPA should be focused on, rather than being distracted by issues like carbon pollution.

(Pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that an EPA administrator considers global climate change, an urgent threat to our health and safety that will cost our economy trillions, a distraction.)

But it turns out that Pruitt’s solution to the fact that more than half of all Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution might be to – well, redefine what’s healthy.

Court just granted EPA’s “review” of smog limits

Pruitt’s recent actions suggest he may simply declare that the pollution levels his agency’s independent science advisors have said are unhealthy – 70 parts per billion – are now acceptable. It’s like the diet which lets you eat ice cream by saying it only counts as 50 calories. Or a plan to improve education by changing all the C’s to A’s.

Responding to a request from Pruitt for more time to “fully review” the issues, a federal court on April 11, 2017, postponed oral arguments on the smog limits.

Many observers consider this a prelude to potentially weakening the standards.

Given Pruitt’s close political and financial ties to companies that would benefit from looser pollution rules – and his recent decision to ignore science and refuse to ban a pesticide that causes developmental problems in children – it’s hardly a leap to imagine he’ll continue to disregard public health.

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