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Research on air particles passes muster

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PROVO — Research completed in part by a Brigham Young University professor that showed air pollution shortens lives and was used to establish air-quality standards has withstood the scrutiny of an extensive scientific probe.

A panel of scientists from the Health Effects Institute last week issued a report that strongly supported two studies that the FDA used in 1997 to form a basis for its air-quality standards.

The studies, conducted in the mid-1990s by BYU Professor Arden Pope and researchers at Harvard and the American Cancer Society, showed that higher levels of tiny air particles are associated with increased death rates.

The institute's panel concluded after an extensive analysis that the original data was accurately collected and recorded and that all findings could be replicated.

HEI researchers also did an extensive analysis to determine whether additional variables and different statistical techniques would change the original findings.

To Pope's delight, they did not.

"The bottom line is they got the same results we had and they found them to be robust," said Pope, an economics professor. "Remarkably, the studies held up to just about everything."

The institute's analysis may put to rest some criticism leveled at the two studies by critics of the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particles and to maintain other standards that were in effect.

Some industry groups and members of Congress questioned the EPA standards and called the two studies on which they based their positions, "junk science."

Skeptics also demanded that researchers release the names of the people they studied, saying that all parts of research paid for with tax money should be made public.

Pope said researchers were in a tough spot when access to the gathered data was demanded. They were prevented by law from releasing private medical information of the test subjects and they had signed confidentiality agreements with the people who agreed to be studied, he said.

"The studies were referred to as 'secret sciences.' It was quite unfair," he said of the studies that were published in such prestigious peer-reviewed publications as the New England Journal of Medicine. "It wasn't like it was press-release science."

To quell any concerns in Congress or the scientific community, researchers agreed to make their data available to HEI, which is jointly funded by industry and the EPA.

"The reanalysis confirms that these were excellent studies by top scientists," said John M. Coruthers Jr., president of the American Lung Association.

"This independent reanalysis vindicates EPA and shows that we can improve and lengthen people's lives by reducing air pollution," he said. "The longer we wait to take action, the more unnecessary deaths will occur."

Last spring, in response to an industry lawsuit, a federal appeals court set aside the EPA standards.

The appeals court decision is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. EPA is reviewing the latest scientific evidence on particle pollution as part of its periodic five-year review.

"Although I was confident in our work and knew it had already been published in peer-reviewed journals, it's still exciting to see it hold up under intense and professional scrutiny," said Pope. "Hopefully this finding will allow the EPA and industry to work together to improve air quality in the U.S."

E-MAIL: jeffh@desnews.com