WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must revamp its air-pollution research and monitoring program to support an expensive clampdown on fine soot emissions, according to a report released here today by the National Research Council (NRC). The panel says EPA should spend a whopping $440 million over the next 13 years on particulate matter (PM) research.
Last July, EPA issued tough new goals for cutting airborne particles and ozone in spite of a huge outcry from industry groups, which claimed that the rules weren't supported by sound science. The agency decided to target very fine particles, called PM2.5, because dozens of epidemiologic studies suggest that this class of pollutants may lead to respiratory problems and sometimes death in hundreds of thousands of people, especially those very young or old. EPA estimates its new limits--which won't go into effect until at least 2002--will prevent 15,000 early deaths, but the agency also acknowledges gaps in its understanding of how PM2.5 causes harm. Last year, Congress handed EPA $49.6 million for PM research in 1998--nearly twice what the agency asked for--and asked the NRC to help decide how to spend it.
The NRC panel's initial report says EPA needs to focus its PM research dollars on 10 topics, ranging from exposure studies to toxicology. EPA's current research portfolio, the report says, is "crucially inadequate" in two areas: estimating how well outdoor monitoring relates to what people actually breathe, and figuring out which component of the particles--such as metals or organic compounds--accounts for their toxicity. The recommended research program would cost about $440 million and finish in 2010. "It may sound like a lot [of money], but we're talking about a really long-term research program," says NRC panel chair Jonathan Samet, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. "Basically, we want to make sure [EPA does] it right."
The report also says EPA's monitoring program, which begins this year, "is moving forward too rapidly" and might not measure the relevant air pollutants. EPA officials told ScienceNOW they plan to address this criticism, for example, by holding a workshop this summer to get scientists' input into the monitoring network. But the agency doesn't expect to delay the monitoring, says EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment director William Farland: "We don't read this as saying we should stop what we had planned."