A New Paradigm for Managing Air Pollution?

For several years, many within the scientific community have discussed a streamlined approach to regulating the multitude of air pollutants poisoning our air. In 2004, the National Research Council suggested that we “Strive to take an integrated multipollutant approach to address the most significant exposures and risks” and “foster control strategies that accomplish comprehensive reductions in the most cost-effective manner for all priority pollutants.”

As a result of these recommendations, as well as the growing interest from regulators and the regulated community to manage air pollutants more effectively, the Environmental Protection Agency and Health Effects Institute co-hosted a three-day panel discussion this week in Chapel Hill, NC titled: EPA’s Multipollutant Science and Risk Analysis: Addressing Multiple Pollutants in the NAAQS Review Process.

Why was this meeting important?
This workshop marked the first official forum convened to address the scientific challenges associated with developing a multipollutant strategy to reduce criteria air pollutants.

What would be some advantages of a multipollutant approach?
One reason might be that in the real world, we’re usually exposed to more than one air pollutant at a time. Although it’s currently practical to study the health effects from exposure to just one air pollutant at a time, such an approach may not represent the best possible model. Society could also get more bang for the buck. How? When industry installs control equipment, for example, one control could deal with more than one pollutant. Another example might be the creation of one State Implementation Plan for several air pollutants instead of a separate plan for each, thereby concurrently reducing bureaucratic processes as well as emissions.

What are the challenges in developing a multipollutant approach?
Like all innovative ideas, there are issues to be worked out.  One major issue is that of health effects characterization. In a mixture of pollutants, scientists may not always be able to tell which pollutant of a mixture of many pollutants is causing which specific health effect when they’re analyzing data. Additionally, some pollutants, such as particulate matter, are not homogenous in nature. This means that the health effects resulting from exposure to PM could vary significantly by region.  Also, since we’ve been managing air quality on a pollutant-by-pollutant basis for decades, adoption of a new management system would require a complete overhaul from the way in which we currently regulate air pollution.

What will happen next?
EPA will consolidate all of the discussion from the meeting and develop a framework within the next year through which we might be able to determine a path forward in regulating criteria air pollutants more effectively.

The Bottom Line
My takeaway from the conference: We aren’t going to model our way out of air pollution problems, and we aren’t going to monitor our way out of air pollution problems, but we can implement a smart, practical, and effective air quality management program based on the principle of risk minimization. Minimizing the risk from all air pollutants is the best way to ensure maximum protection of public health.

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