EPA proposal will hobble good science and harm American families

EPA proposal will hobble good science and harm American families
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Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE’s new proposal to block the use of life-saving science is a gift to industry lobbyists — and it will cause real harm to American families. Pruitt is obstructing the agency’s ability to use highly reliable scientific information, including data used to determine whether chemicals and pollutants cause cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.

This proposal would allow industry to pollute our environment without fear of accountability, because the politician leading EPA is telling scientists not to use the best science.

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Under this proposal, studies that have led to health-protective limits on toxic pollutants would be rendered unusable. Next time a major scientific study warns of a danger to our children, EPA may well be unable to act.

 

Pruitt’s proposal would add huge amounts of red tape to the process of scientific inquiry. It would mean, for example, that EPA could ignore long-term studies — say, following the health of the children of poor women living in heavily polluted communities over years or decades — in EPA decisions because not all of their underlying data could be made public or they could not or should not be “replicated.” Much of the best health science research is done this way and leads to life-saving protections.

The proposed rule is based on legislation sponsored by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithOvernight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback Report on new threats targeting our elections should serve as a wake-up call to public, policymakers Overnight Energy: Watchdog faults EPA over Pruitt security costs | Court walks back order on enforcing chemical plant rule | IG office to probe truck pollution study MORE (R-Texas). Though long sought by chemical industry lobbyists, it’s never been able to pass Congress. While Smith’s approach was to carpet bomb EPA science with restrictions, Pruitt’s new order is more of a laser-guided missile — hitting just the targets that will help industry avoid accountability.

This narrowing was done, it appears, because the top political appointee in EPA’s chemical safety office, who came straight from the industry’s lobbying arm, complained that the sweeping version might backfire and impose burdens on companies.

The proposed rule compels EPA to make public any “dose response data and models” it relies on in promulgating a regulation. This approach goes right to the heart of the war industry has been waging against the risk assessment science used by EPA and called for by the nation’s most prestigious scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

For decades the chemical industry has argued that virtually every substance, no matter how toxic, has a “safe threshold” — a level of exposure below which there is no risk at all.

The science has steadily challenged this assumption, based on strong evidence that even where a threshold appears to exist in, say, laboratory animals, when extrapolated to a diverse human population the notion that a threshold actually exists rapidly falls apart. That is because the human population exhibits enormous variation in genetics, health status, life stage, background and co-exposures, etc. — such that a “safe” level of exposure in an affluent, healthy adult may well not be safe at all for, say, a developing fetus or an senior living in a poor community.

The industry contests this science because it leads to stricter standards on its products. But as the sophistication of scientific methods and our understanding of biology have grown, the science is increasingly pointing to evidence of real effects of many substances at low doses, once thought to be safe. Lead and small particulates in air pollution are two examples of substances where science has not identified a “safe” level of exposure.

EPA’s proposal will be subject to public comment, in contrast to Pruitt’s earlier plan to issue this as an immediately effective directive. On the flip side, though, it will be harder for a new administration to undo a rule, a point Pruitt himself made during Tuesday’s announcement.

It will be critical that advocates for strong science and public and environmental health protections loudly let EPA know that its effort to allow industry interests to manipulate agency risk assessment science is outrageous and unacceptable.

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a lead senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund.