As the nation struggles to control a lung-related pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to merely stay the course on its standards for fine particulates, produced in significant amounts by vehicles and power plants.

“Based on review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisors, we are proposing to retain existing PM standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a Tuesday release announcing the proposal.

In light of this, the administration might soon be fielding more questions about its policies on air pollution. Last week, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health presented research, normalized for other factors, that relatively minor measurable increases in the same size of fine particulates (PM2.5) could affect a 15% increase in the death rate from COVID-19.

The decision, which includes provisions for both PM10 (soot) and the smaller particulates, follows formal recommendations made last September, in which what the EPA presented ignored earlier research from the agency supporting tighter standards. 

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler

Led by a former coal lobbyist, the EPA last year moved to affect changes to its modeling method used to count deaths from particulate-matter emissions, such as those from coal and diesel, and drafted recommendations via an internal committee to limit what kinds of studies of health effects can be used to determine standards. Prior to that, in 2018, the EPA dissolved two scientific review boards, including the Particulate Matter Review Panel. 

The release makes statements about the criteria pollutant that seem to undercut the very conclusions reached. "For PM, the evidence suggests that people with heart or lung disease, children and older adults, and nonwhite populations are at particular risk,” it says, in a fact sheet that then rationalizes the current freeze of standards. 

As part of National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the EPA is required to set maximum allowed levels for six “criteria pollutants,” of which particulate matter is one, and to regularly review its standards. The EPA last revised its standards for PM2.5 in 2012. 

Report: Diesel fumes stress your brain

Report: Diesel fumes stress your brain

The standards place limits for primary (health) effects, as well as for secondary standards. The existing secondary standards the EPA says “are adequate to protect against PM-related visibility impairment, climate effects, and effects on materials.”

U.S. concentrations of PM2.5 fell by 39% from 2000 to 2018, the agency reported. 

The EPA says that it will issue the final standards by the end of the year. The public, groups, and perhaps the corporations that have more pull with the administration still have 60 days to comment after the proposed standards are published in the Federal Register. 

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak, this has been a very busy year for environmental rules and standards. Just late last month the administration also released its final rule for emissions and fuel economy requirements that will have an impact through the middle of the decade.