Policy ForumSCIENCE AND REGULATION

Don't abandon evidence and process on air pollution policy

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Science  29 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6434, pp. 1398-1400
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw9460

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Summary

Air pollution kills—scientists have known this for many years. But how do they know? The global scientific community has developed and agreed upon a framework that draws on multiple lines of evidence across different scientific disciplines to assess the existence and strength of links between air pollution and health. In the United States, federal policies require use of this science-based framework to ensure that air pollution standards protect the public's health. But now this science-based policy process—and public health—are at risk. Recent developments at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stand to quietly upend the time-tested and scientifically backed process the agency relies on to protect the public from ambient air pollution (1). One of these developments—changes in how the EPA handles causality between air pollutants and health effects—has received less attention but, if enacted, would alter the approach that the EPA has used for more than a decade to set health-based air pollutant standards. At the March meeting of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) (2), these changes may begin to unfold. The agency now faces a dilemma. If the EPA leadership embraces the process proposed by the current CASAC chair, it will fundamentally change the EPA's process for scientific assessment. If the EPA leadership ignores the CASAC recommendations, then the agency would be declining to listen to (what should be) its top science advisers, thus eroding the foundational concept of peer review as central to ensuring the use of strong science in policy decisions