Panel urges more EPA funding for work on particulate matter

Health effects well-known, but scientists urge better understanding of pollutant

March 25, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A scientific panel recommended yesterday that the Environmental Protection Agency increase funding for research into particulate matter, a pollutant in dust, smoke and soot that is widely viewed as a major factor in heart and lung disorders.

The National Academy of Sciences said more research is crucial because the EPA is updating its standards on particulate matter - which is generated by cars, power plants and other sources.

"We know a lot about the health effects, but in terms of regulations, we still have a lot of work to do," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and chairman of the panel that issued the report.

The report calls for research to identify the chemical composition of various particulate matter, which types are the most hazardous and where they come from. The study also recommends long-term research into the effects of chronic exposure and of combining particulates with other pollutants.

The report comes after years of debate about the damaging effects of airborne particulates. The EPA proposed new standards on particulate matter in 1997, but the trucking, automotive and electrical power industries objected, prompting Congress to approve additional studies. The EPA estimates costs for complying with the 1997 standards at $30 billion.

Health and environmental groups say that those standards are too weak and that the Bush administration has been reluctant to enforce them.

"We think they're dragging their feet," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, a Washington-based environmental group.

But EPA officials say they're not delaying action.

"It's a valuable tool," said Paul Gilman, an EPA science adviser. "They're saying they wish there was more information out there. So do we."

The ill effects of particulate matter have been well documented.

"There's been studies linking particulate matter to everything from asthma attacks and increased emergency room visits to premature deaths among the elderly," said Deborah Shprentz, an air quality expert and consultant for the American Lung Association.

But Samet said there is still much to be learned about what makes up particulate matter and its effects on human health.

"The air's full of all different particles from many different sources, and we're treating them all the same. We need to stop doing that," Samet said.

The report is the fourth and final study in a series requested by Congress in 1997.

Samet said he hopes the report's conclusions will remind Congress of the need to continue funding research. Congress has approved about $60 million for research each year since 1997, he said.

"These questions aren't going to be answered overnight," Samet said. "We said originally there should be a long-term agenda, and we stand by that."

EPA officials said yesterday that their budget for next year, being reviewed by Congress, calls for $64 million in particulate matter research. Updated particulate matter standards are at least two to three years away, they said.

Experts say the size of tiny particles determines the potential for health problems.

Particles larger than 10 micrometers cause less concern, but can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, experts say. But particles smaller than 10 micrometers pose the greatest risk because they can seep into the lungs and possibly the bloodstream. (A human hair is about 80 to 100 micrometers wide.)

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