Reed & Whitehouse Demand Answers About Trump Administration’s Toxic Attacks on Clean Air During Pandemic
Senators demand answers over EPA's moves to roll back clean air quality standards amid COVID-19 crisis
PROVIDENCE, RI – As Americans battle a potentially fatal novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that attacks people’s respiratory system, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have urged the Trump Administration to cut down on air pollution by strengthening clean air standards to help protect public health.
The senators cited a study by Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which analyzed data from 3,080 counties nationwide with confirmed coronavirus deaths and found a statistical link between exposure to air pollution and higher death rates. According to Harvard, the study found that “people with COVID-19 who live in U.S. regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas.”
But instead of strengthening clean air standards to protect the public, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refused to do so, ignoring the recent data about the link between air pollution and increased death rates from COVID-19. The Trump EPA’s refusal to strengthen air quality standards is only its latest move in its long-running war against environmental protections. In just the last several weeks, the Trump administration has released a proposal to prohibit the use of public health studies in rulemaking and finalized rules to increase tailpipe emissions and rollback a rule limiting mercury emissions from power plants.
“Americans are sacrificing and social distancing and we’re spending all this taxpayer money trying to save lives and protect public health and President Trump is just completely undercutting those efforts with these unnecessary partisan attacks on clean air. Increasing pollution in the midst of a pandemic is irresponsible, counterproductive, and will only make things worse,” said Senator Reed.
“This administration is once again unleashing polluters on the American public,” said Senator Whitehouse. “Americans will pay for it with their health.”
Reed and Whitehouse joined with 16 of their colleagues in raising concerns about the Trump Administration’s refusal to strengthen air quality standards despite the clear health risks. In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the Senators demanded answers from the EPA about the agency’s action to enforce existing air pollution requirements, improve air quality, and study the link between poor air quality and worse health outcomes for COVID-19 patients.
The 18 Senators wrote: “EPA announced its decision to maintain current national ambient air quality standards that EPA’s own scientists say fail to protect public health – and that research links with higher COVID-19 mortality. The Environmental Protection Agency should be taking actions that will further protect health during this crisis, not put more Americans at risk.”
The issue pertains to fine particulate matter, which can travel deep into the respiratory tract and worsen lung and heart health.
“Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed that this standard for this air pollution does not protect public health. EPA’s own scientists found that the current level is inadequate in January…Now the Harvard public health study on fine particulate matter suggests that reducing this air pollutant could save lives by reducing COVID-19 mortality – yet EPA’s draft decision indicates that it will take no action to lower this standard,” the Senators wrote.
In addition to Reed and Whitehouse, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Tom Carper (D-DE), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Angus King (I-ME), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The text of the letter follows and is available here:
Dear Administrator Wheeler:
We write to express concern that in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking actions that will worsen air pollution and – according to recent research – could result in higher death rates among COVID-19 patients. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests a link between more air pollution and higher mortality among COVID-19 patients. Yet despite this ongoing public health emergency, the EPA has taken steps in recent weeks that will increase air pollution, including rolling back auto emissions standards. Today, EPA announced its decision to maintain current national ambient air quality standards that EPA’s own scientists say fail to protect public health – and that research links with higher COVID-19 mortality. The Environmental Protection Agency should be taking actions that will further protect health during this crisis, not put more Americans at risk.
Air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter can be particularly detrimental to human health. This air pollutant, also known as PM, consists of particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns (one-millionth of a meter) or less in width. Because of their small size, these air pollutant particles can travel deep into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter can dramatically worsen lung and heart health, causing or aggravating chronic conditions Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that those with chronic lung and heart conditions are at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 if they are infected.
The Harvard study found that an increase of only one microgram (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air in fine particulate matter is associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. For example, if Manhattan’s air for the past 20 years contained one less microgram of fine particular matter per cubic meter of air, the study predicts there would have been 248 fewer COVID-19 deaths in the borough through April 4.
As the authors of the Harvard study note, their results “underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulation during the COVID-19 crisis.” Failure to do so could “potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.” Yet in the past two weeks, in the midst of what the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges is a public health crisis, EPA took steps to loosen auto emissions standards and increase air toxic emissions from some of our nation’s coal-fired power plants steps – steps that will increase air pollution and increase deaths from respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.
Additionally, earlier today EPA announced its draft decision to leave the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter unchanged. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed that this standard for this air pollution does not protect public health. EPA’s own scientists found that the current level is inadequate in January. Now the Harvard public health study on fine particulate matter suggests that reducing this air pollutant could save lives by reducing COVID-19 mortality – yet EPA’s draft decision indicates that it will take no action to lower this standard.
Given the new information regarding this dangerous link between air pollution and worse COVID-19 patient outcomes and the imperative it suggests to enforce existing air pollution safeguards, we request that you respond to the following no later than April 21, 2020:
- Does the EPA plan to enforce all other existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis?
- Please provide a list of air pollution regulations that EPA expects to propose or finalize during 2020.
- What immediate actions are being taken by the EPA to improve air quality in specific locales and/or nationwide to improve COVID-19 patient outcomes?
- What, if any, research has the EPA undertaken on the link between poor air quality and worse outcomes for COVID-19 patients? Is any further research by the EPA on this link being considered?
- Are you aware of any research or action being undertaken by other federal or state agencies on this link? If so, have you been in contact with these agencies regarding this? How will EPA incorporate the results of this research into pending rulemakings, including any reviews of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards?
- Are you aware of any research or action being undertaken by other countries on this link? If so, have you been in contact with these countries’ health or environmental agencies regarding this?
- How will this link between air quality and COVID-19 patient outcomes impact future EPA decision-making?
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We urge you to take immediate action to improve nationwide air quality to ensure better COVID-19 patient outcomes.
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