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Americans must have confidence federal agencies are using the best available science to confront coronavirus

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The offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

America is in the grip of a public health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly changed life for everyone in this country, and great sacrifice lies ahead for all of us as we struggle to protect the vulnerable in our society and overcome the threat posed by COVID-19. Americans deserve to be confident that all agencies of the federal government are using the best available science to confront this pandemic.

Unfortunately, a recent action by the Environmental Protection Agency raises grave concerns that the agency is prioritizing ideology over science. On March 18, EPA published the latest version of its deceptively named “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. If finalized, this rule would prohibit a scientific study from being considered in the agency’s regulatory process if all of its underlying data and models are not publicly available for independent validation. This would force researchers to choose between exposing study participants’ personal data and companies’ confidential business information (CBI) – violating longstanding privacy laws and guidelines in the process – or allowing the EPA to ignore their research findings, which could be crucial to understanding environmental and public health dangers posed by air pollutants, toxic chemicals, and other environmental threats.

It has long been clear that the proposed rule is designed to weaken environmental regulations and undermine EPA’s ability to enforce environmental laws, which is all too consistent with this administration’s preference for corporate special interests over public health. But the current pandemic highlights the broader risk that the rule poses to the public.

EPA plays an important role in the larger federal response to the crisis through its Emerging Viral Pathogen program, which evaluates disinfectant products put forth by product manufacturers and determines which of the disinfectants are qualified for use by the general public against a pathogen. The agency released a list of EPA-registered disinfectant products qualified for use against the coronavirus in March. Americans should be able to trust that an EPA-sanctioned disinfectant will keep them safe. If the “Strengthening Transparency” rule were in place, however, any study depending on public health data or CBI – say, a study of those individuals admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, or a manufacturer’s analysis of its cleaning products – would be disqualified from consideration unless the researchers publicly released this medical information or CBI. EPA might not even be able to consider a scientific study that exposed a disinfectant’s inability to protect people from the pathogen. Unscientific and arbitrary limitations on science would leave Americans at greater risk.

The coronavirus pandemic highlights yet again the paramount importance of letting the best available science guide the federal government’s response to public health threats. But the EPA’s proposed “Strengthening Transparency” rule would do just the opposite by excluding critical information from the agency’s decision making. In the context of a global pandemic, the rule would undermine EPA’s ability to deliver timely and credible advice on what Americans should be doing to protect themselves. In order to adhere to its mission to protect human health and the environment, EPA should abandon this rule so that no American will ever have cause to doubt the scientific basis of EPA’s work – during a crisis or at any other time.  

Eddie Bernice Johnson represents the 30th District of Texas and is chairwoman of the House Science Committee.

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