New EPA Science Regulation: A Trojan Horse that Hurts Public Health

By Dr. Ananya Roy, Sc.D. & Dr. Elena Craft, Ph.D

Last week, embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rushed to propose a new rule that may prevent EPA from using certain scientific studies in its decisions. He was in such a rush that he didn’t even wait for the White House Office of Management and Budget to complete its review of the proposal before releasing it. The rule was published yesterday in the Federal Register, marking the start of a 30 day public comment period.

Though touted as a measure for transparency, the proposed policy includes a carefully worded loophole[1] that would enable politically driven decisions on what science is used to support critical safety standards. It would hamper public health protections by allowing the agency’s political leadership to select studies that benefit its agenda and ignore those that don’t, opening the door to industry interests and secrecy.

Our colleague Richard Denison explained in a blog post last week how this policy might be used to decimate toxic chemicals safeguards at EPA. Here, we focus on what this deeply destructive proposal would mean for clean air and health.

Simply put, this rule will cripple EPA’s ability to protect the public from air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution is associated with reductions in lung growth[2] and development of asthma[3] in children and heart attacks and strokes in adults[4]. In America, air pollution continues to cause premature mortality accounting for more than 100,000 premature deaths per year, but we’ve made important progress—particle pollution deaths are down to 28 per 100,000 people, from 48 per 100,000 in just 1990—thanks to concerted efforts over decades to set and implement air pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. These efforts have proven to be an incredible public health investment, bringing $30 worth of benefits for every $1 spent.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA administrator set air pollution standards that “are requisite to protect the public health” with “an adequate margin of safety” and “accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge useful in indicating the kind and extent of all identifiable effects on public health.” With Pruitt’s proposed changes allowing him to limit the kind of science that can be used for decision making, the very process for setting these life-saving air pollution standards is now at risk.

What’s the role of science in the current process for setting air pollution standards?

Under the law, EPA is required to periodically review national air quality standards for key air pollutants such as smog, soot, and lead. The review process starts with a comprehensive assessment of all available science on the health effects of air pollution. The assessment must include an evaluation of the extent to which air pollution causes premature death and disease and how the risk of disease or death changes in response to different levels of air pollution. This “dose response analysis” is a critical component of assessing and quantifying the current impact of air pollution on the American population and the benefits of maintaining or strengthening current air quality standards. Yet Pruitt’s proposal would restrict the science that can inform this key public health question and subjects it to political influence.

How will the proposed policy affect this process?

Pruitt’s new proposal would allow political appointees at EPA to prevent EPA scientists from using the very data that has underpinned our nation’s air quality standards and helped drive significant improvements in public health. The regulation would require public health  researchers to make study data public if they want results to be considered in policy formulation, but this would often be in conflict with existing privacy laws.

For example, the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II tracked air pollution exposure and personal medical histories of nearly 670,000 people for more than two decades to understand the exact risk of air pollution on death and the results of this study underpin critical components of decision making with respect to national air quality standards. The dataset for this study contains sensitive personal information, such as information on poverty, smoking, and personal health. This raises obvious privacy concerns. Meanwhile, public disclosure of this sensitive information would not add to the integrity of the analysis: the American Cancer Society study has been subjected to many rounds of independent reanalysis and each time the results of the study have stood up and are also consistent with findings from many other studies.

An analysis of a similar bill introduced in 2015 by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that EPA would likely reduce by half the number of studies it relies on in developing policies and regulations because of the conflict with existing privacy regulations, burden, and cost of complying with the law. Without a complete pool of all scientific evidence and objective criteria for deciding which studies should inform the magnitude of the impact of air pollution, decision making could be skewed toward inferior studies.

These threats are only exacerbated by the unaccountable discretion the proposal would give the EPA Administrator to issue exemptions from the policy on a case-by-case basis. This opens the door to allowing the Administrator to selectively choose studies driven by industry interests or political considerations rather than best available science. The current EPA, for example, could choose to rely on industry evidence of low harm to justify weakening air pollution standards that help protect public health.

Pruitt is putting politics before health

No one should be fooled by Scott Pruitt’s facetious interest in transparency and objective decision making. One only has to look at his track record of attacking public health protections and myriad ongoing investigations into his unethical behavior, industry connections, and profligate spending to determine where his interests lie. Pruitt and political appointees at the agency have shown disdain towards the fundamental mission of the EPA – protecting the health and well-being of the American people and the environment. This proposed policy threatens decades of progress made under both Republican and Democratic administrations to protect Americans from air pollution using data driven decision making – which is why it is so important for Americans to oppose this new anti-science policy during the public comment process.

 

 

[1]See proposed rule Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science. Section 30.9 “The proposed rule includes a provision allowing the Administrator to exempt significant regulatory decisions on a case-by-case basis if he or she determines that compliance is impracticable…”

[2] Gauderman, W. James, et al. "Association of improved air quality with lung development in children." New England Journal of Medicine 372.10 (2015): 905-913.

[3] Khreis, Haneen, et al. "Exposure to traffic-related air pollution and risk of development of childhood asthma: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Environment international 100 (2017): 1-31.

[4] Scheers, Hans, et al. "Long-term exposure to particulate matter air pollution is a risk factor for stroke: meta-analytical evidence." Stroke 46.11 (2015): 3058-3066.

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