Amid COVID-19, the Trump administration sets dangerous air pollution standards. What is at stake for Houstonians?

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist; Rachel Fullmer, Senior Attorney; Jeremy Proville, Director; Grace Tee Lewis, Health Scientist

The Trump administration’s disregard for science has been clear in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not the only health threat they’re making worse by ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence. For three years the administration has systematically sought to weaken clean air safeguards, endangering all Americans.

We know air pollution causes heart disease, diabetes and lung disease—and that the people suffering from these conditions are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Independent of the ongoing pandemic, air pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths across America year after year. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed to retain an outdated and inadequate standard for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution despite strong scientific evidence that it must be strengthened to adequately protect human health.

To understand what having this pollution standard means for families living in the Greater Houston area, Harvard University and EDF scientists undertook an analysis of the impacts of PM2.5 exposure across the city. We found that:

  • Exposure to fine particle air pollution in 2015 was responsible for 5,213 premature deaths and over $49 billion in associated economic damages.
  • More than 75% of the health burden was borne by communities exposed to PM2.5 levels below the current standard.
  • Meeting the current standard alone would have prevented 91 deaths of the more than 5,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution.

By ignoring the scientific evidence and retaining the current standard, Administrator Wheeler is ignoring the very real health impacts felt by Houstonians and communities across the country from exposure to fine particle pollution.

Who bears the burden of fine particle air pollution in Houston?

Most Houstonians may not think about the fine particle pollution produced by more than 5 million registered cars and trucks and 121,000 industrial facilities in the region. While pollution directly impacts East Houston fence line communities, it also transforms in the atmosphere and blows west across to unexpected places downwind of the sources. It may not be visible, but fine particle pollution affects the health of nearly all Houstonians.

This analysis indicates that almost all of the city is exposed to fine particulate matter above 10 micrograms per meter cubed [µg/m3] (most scientists say that the new EPA standard should be between 8-10 µg/m3), and large portions in the west and southwest of the city are even above the current standard (12 µg/m3). This includes communities along the Energy Corridor, River Oaks, Bellaire, and West University and parts of Memorial where household incomes in the city are among the highest in the region. Importantly, the areas with the highest particulate pollution levels currently do not have regulatory monitors.

Exposure to high levels of particulate pollution is widespread.

This particle pollutant map was generated using state of the art fine scale model predictions at a 1 km2 scale that incorporates satellite data, weather and meteorology, land-use, elevation, chemical transport model predictions and regulatory monitor data where available.

Click here to access an interactive map to explore where PM2.5 levels are high and which communities are affected.

Particulate matter air pollution impacts both high income and low income communities in Houston. It has taken a great toll on communities of color and low wealth in Houston (including Gulfton, Sharpstown, Westwood, and Gulfgate neighborhoods). Sharpstown – a predominantly Asian and Hispanic working class community, where more than 40% of the families make less than $25,000 a year – is estimated to have had more than 80 deaths due to PM2.5 in 2015 in just 9 square miles. Many middle class neighborhoods (such as Briar Forest, Eldridge, West Oaks and communities in West and Southwest Houston) have also experienced high numbers of deaths due to pollution.

The health burden is particularly large in certain high-density areas with elevated pollution, in which the number of deaths due to PM2.5 is five to ten times higher than the average across the city.

Fine particle pollution results in more than 5,000 premature deaths.

To estimate the impact of PM2.5 on premature deaths we combined the pollution concentration data with population at a resolution of 1 km2 (GPWv4), baseline mortality at the county scale from CDC WONDER databases, and a concentration response function derived from a meta-analysis of over 50 epidemiological studies of PM2.5 on all-cause mortality conducted across a wide range of exposures, including 17 studies where the mean exposure was below the current standard.

Click here to access an interactive map of the health impacts of PM2.5 exposure and here for a breakdown of impacts by Houston city super neighborhoods.

Overall, particle pollution across the Greater Houston area resulted in a staggering $49 billion in the cost to life across the area. The new analysis highlights the urgent need to strengthen the federal standard for PM2.5 – to better protect Houstonians and communities across the country.

EPA is ignoring the scientific evidence – at the expense of our health

EPA is proposing to keep an outdated, inadequate standard despite overwhelming scientific evidence that stronger safeguards are needed. The EPA administrator is required by law to use the best available science to set a standard that is protective of public health.

There is robust and consistent scientific evidence that air pollution causes serious health impacts at levels at which Houstonians are being exposed – even below the EPA standard. For example:

  • A study of 61 million Medicare beneficiaries in America found higher particle pollution was associated with higher mortality even when restricted to Americans never exposed to levels above 12 µg /m3.
  • A Canadian study of over 2 million people, where the average exposure was 7 µg /m3 and nearly everyone was exposed to levels below 12 µg /m3, found that air pollution even at these levels was associated with premature death.

“We have studies of millions of people over decades whose exposure never exceeded the current standard, and find strong evidence not only that those exposures increase mortality rates but that the increased risk of death per 1 µg/m3 is actually larger at the lower exposures,” said Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard University and senior author of the analysis. “Moreover, these include studies using causal modeling methods (that EPA’s advisors have called for) which find the same effects as the other studies,” Schwartz continued.

Administrator Wheeler, borrowing language from industry-linked EPA advisors, has cast doubt on the health evidence to suggest that the effects seen in these studies are due to factors such as socioeconomic status or exposure misclassification. “This notion is simply false,” said Dr. Alina Vodonos Zilberg, data scientist at K Health, previously post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University and collaborator on this analysis. “The meta-analysis of over 50 studies (that these results are based on) reveals that the link between air pollution and mortality only becomes stronger when socioeconomic factors are taken into account and better exposure assessment methods are used.”

The latest claim is that the studies of health effects only show associations and do not show cause and effect, since the studies do not use causal methods. This – again – is not true, as there are an increasing number of studies that use causal methods that reaffirm the risks of air pollution, including several large studies among populations in the Eastern United States (Zigler et al 2018 , Wang et al 2017, Schwartz et al. 2017, Schwartz et al. 2018, Abu Awad et al. 2019).

There are no more excuses. When leaders set and enforce smart policies, it saves lives and protects our well-being. Now is the time to get this right.

Take action now to demand EPA strengthen the federal standard.

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