Is small particle air pollution really killing Americans?

EPA uses shaky claims of "premature death" to justify new air pollution regulations.

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CHICAGO, July 1, 2015— Unnoticed by most citizens, last week the United States Senate introduced the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2015.” The act is aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) practice of refusing to disclose data from scientific studies that support new pollution regulations. The act indirectly questions the EPA assertion that Americans are dying today from small particle air pollution.

Particulate matter refers to PM2.5, classified by the EPA as particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, much smaller than the eye can see. Particle pollution is a mixture of dust, nitrates and sulfates, metals, pollen, and organic chemicals. Past EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before Congress in 2011, stating, “Particulate matter causes premature death. It doesn’t make you sick. It’s directly causal to dying sooner than you should.”

The EPA claims that any level of small particles can cause premature death. The agency warns that death may be short-term, occurring within a few hours of inhalation, or may be caused by long-term inhalation of PM2.5 over several years. EPA policy advisor Amanda Brown asserted that between 130,000 and 320,000 Americans died prematurely in 2005 due to small particle pollution, an incredible 6 to 15 percent of total US deaths.

EPA claims that particle pollution triggers heart failure, respiratory failure, or other causes of death. For example, suppose a senior citizen dies a few days before his 67th birthday and a coroner determines heart failure to be the cause of death. According to the EPA, the death may have been “premature” and caused by small particle air pollution.


The EPA uses “prevention” of premature deaths from small particles to justify tighter pollution regulations. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which will force closure of coal-fired power plants across the nation, is an example. The EPA claims that implementation of the CPP will prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and $93 billion in climate and public health benefits. But the monetized climate benefits are essentially zero. Almost all of the $93 billion comes from an EPA calculation on savings from avoidance of premature death from small particles.

Today, our nation’s air is remarkably clean, especially when compared to 50 years ago. Incidents of serious air pollution are rare. According to the EPA, the concentration of six major air pollutants, lead, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulates, are down more than a combined 70 percent since 1980. PM2.5 particle pollution is typically below the EPA national standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Fifteen micrograms per cubic meter is not very much. Dr. James Enstrom, retired researcher from the UCLA School of Public Health, points out that a person breathing in 15 micrograms of small particles per cubic meter would inhale only about one teaspoon of these microscopic particles over an 80-year lifespan. The EPA’s assertion that this small amount of particles causes premature death is not credible.

How does the EPA conclude that thousands of Americans die each year from particle pollution? No coroner ever attributes a cause of death to particle pollution. Instead, the EPA relies on epidemiological observational studies that associate particle pollution with death.

Epidemiological studies analyze statistical associations between exposure to an agent and appearance of disease in a population. An example is the Doll and Hill study in the 1950s that found that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer in a population of 41,000 British medical doctors. EPA has concluded that associations found in epidemiological studies show that inhalation of small particles cause premature death.

But the association between death and particle pollution found by studies that EPA relies on is shaky at best. Relative risk (RR) is the ratio of incidence of disease in an exposed population to a control population. The size of the relative risk is a measure of the chance that an association is causal.

The Harvard Six Cities study of 1993 and the American Cancer Society study of 1995, two studies that form the basis of EPA small particle science, found an increase in relative risk of less than 20 percent (RR=1.2). An increase in death rates of less than 20 percent (RR=1.2) is almost statistically indistinguishable from zero. In contrast, the Doll and Hill study on cigarettes and lung cancer found smokers had 10 times the rate of lung cancer and non-smokers, a relative risk of RR=10. The weak association (small relative risk) between death and particle pollution that the EPA judges to be causal could be due to other factors in the measured populations or even random chance.

But what stinks to high heaven is that data from the Harvard Six Cities and American Cancer Society studies have never been released. Other scientists are not able to replicate and verify the results of these studies. In effect, the EPA is asking all to “trust us” on the science of death from particle pollution. The Secret Science Reform Act proposes to force the EPA to disclose data from studies that support the need for EPA regulations.

Further, EPA is often the funding agency for epidemiological studies that are then used to justify new air pollution regulations. EPA supports such studies either directly or indirectly through grants to organizations such as the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society. For example, over the last decade the EPA has provided more than $20 million in grants to the American Lung Association, a group that supports EPA efforts for more stringent air pollution regulations.

The result is a massive, costly, and growing burden on American citizens in the name of clean air. NERA Economic Consulting estimates that the Clean Power Plan will cost US citizens some $400 billion in compliance costs over the next 15 years. But the savings from “prevention of premature deaths” from particle pollution are likely imaginary.

Steve Goreham is Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America and author of the book The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism:  Mankind and Climate Change Mania.

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Steve Goreham is a speaker, author, and researcher on environmental issues and a former engineer and business executive. He’s a frequently invited guest on radio and television as well as a freelance writer. He is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America, a non-political association of scientists, engineers, and citizens working to inform Americans about the realities of climate science and energy economics. Steve is also author of two books on climate change, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania and Climatism! Science, Common Sense, and the 21st Century’s Hottest Topic. Steve holds an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has more than 30 years of experience at Fortune 100 and private companies in engineering and executive roles. As a white water kayaker, he paddled many of the great rivers of North America. He is a husband and father of three and resides in Illinois.
  • Denis Ables

    Every government agency has decided to promote the administration’s position. Both NASA and NOAA recently jumped the gun, claiming 2014 was the “hottest”. They had to back down after skeptics pointed out that (1) the difference amongst recent years global temperatures is miniscule, a few hundredths of a degree, so well within the area of uncertainty, (2) both agencies insist on basing their analysis on terrestrial data, ignoring the two satellite weather stations. Terrestrial data covers much less than 20 percent of the earth’s surface. (the ocean temperatures are few so hardly accurate. (3) if the same analysis used by NOAA and NASA is performed using either of the satellite datasets, 2014 is either 3rd or 6th, which indicates recent cooling.

    In this case these keystone cops both revised their assessment by assigning probabilities to the various recent years. Both agencies assigned 2014 a probability of less than 50% (of being hottest), so it turns out (and the major news media, as usual ignores it) that both agree that some other combination of years is tied for first place. (Very helpful, right?)

    Then there is the issue of “revisions” to the raw temperature data. Every “correction” to older data pushed the temperature DOWN. Every “correction” to more current data pushed the temperature UP. NO chance of that happening in the real world.

    But, these folks just keep rolling. Now they’ve replaced the surface sea temperature data (SST) with shipboard data which has a known upward bias, which is a flagrant attempt to HIDE the current temperature hiatus. There’s been no additional temperature increase ( RSS satellite data) for the past 18 years and 5 years and counting. Even if the mean of all five global temperature datasets are used (3 terrestrial, 2 satellite) there has been no temperature increase for the past 13+ years.

    There happens to be a new set of (much more accurate/reliable) temperature stations in the US, all of which were set up to avoid ever having to modify the raw data, (About 140 stations as I recall). This data has now been collected for the past decade and, unlike the old US dataset, shows a cooling insofar as the US over that 10 year period.

    Can you even imagine any scientists acting in such a manner?

    This LYING has GOT to stop !

    • 21st Century Pacifist

      What are your credentials in this field? Are you one of the 300,000 “scientist” that don’t believe in Climate Change/Global Warming?

      • Denis Ables

        When you’re outside and getting wet, and the person next to you declares that it is raining, to you ask for his/her credentials? My comments remain true whether I have a PhD or am a homeless beggar.

        The second question is also dubious. The term “:climate change” has been bastardized by all those “scientists” feeding at the government trough. It used to cover such natural events as warming and cooling periods (including ice ages). Now most mindless “believers” view the term as equivalent to the egregious claim of anthropogenic global warming.

  • 21st Century Pacifist

    Who are you to say and who are the morons that you quote to say that intake of small particles don’t affect our health? While many may not even get the dosage that you quote, others may get many times that dosage. Are you saying that workers of power plants and the people that live near them should not be considered? Where will you be when people start dyeing from these inhalations? Probably counting the millions that you get from the fossil fuel industry.

    • Ghostmaker

      Then prove it with data. The true moron is the one being lead around like blind sheep. You seem to be one of them. The EPA has become an activist government agency.

      • 21st Century Pacifist

        Let’s see if I got you correctly, you say that the intake into your respiratory system of mostly inorganic particles should not concern us? Have you heard of black lung or the effects of asbestos?
        Small particles are much more difficult to filter out by our respiratory system. Also when there are other agents that may interfere with the natural filtering mechanism, they are ineffective. This is basic physics and has been known since I took air pollution classes as part of my Master’s in Environmental Engineering.
        The EPA, where I worked for 27 years, is not activist enough. They should use the precautionary principle that is used in most civilized countries instead of having to prove cause and effect with limited resources. People like you are the problem, the cuasi scientists that know just enough to be bold. Would you like to live next to a plant that is spewing out small particles from their stacks?

  • 46helo

    why is it wrong to challenge reports from agencies that will not release the full study? The EPA is making claims about a number of industries, with NO published data to support their claim of harm to humans. The only reason to not publish/release the testing and results is….there is no testing results. So does this mean a Moron made up the association of airborne particulate with human health/deaths? The EPA and any government or scientific agency/group making a claim should first provide the data to support the claim. A conclusion from a “secret” study is not satisfactory.