Trump’s EPA rule would censor science, putting public health at risk

Trump’s EPA rule would censor science, putting public health at risk

The next time a study shows a chemical or pollutant is dangerous to our children’s health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be unable to act. Why? Because even though Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittUndoing the damage Pruitt and Zinke did to our environment Judges skeptical of case against Obama smog rule Interior chief Zinke to leave administration MORE has left EPA, we are still dealing with the aftermath -- including a proposed rule that would block the agency from using critical scientific studies in setting public health standards.

If this rule had applied in the past, it would have hampered EPA’s ability to protect us from toxic chemicals like benzene, lead, mercury, formaldehyde, air pollutants, and even radioactive substances. Going forward, this proposal would threaten rules to limit toxic chemicals like TCE and deadly methylene chloride, as well as future regulatory actions to clean up widespread drinking water contaminants.

The end result? Millions of Americans will face greater exposure to toxic substances associated with cancer, lung disease, asthma, neurological disorders, and other devastating illnesses.

The proposal is called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, but this rule is not about open access to science. It is about restricting EPA’s use of research demonstrating the health effects of harmful exposures. As polluters know well, weakening EPA’s use of science is likely to result in less protection from toxic exposures.

The proposal would bar EPA from using high quality, carefully vetted studies when the researchers cannot make data public. Under the guise of transparency, this proposed rule would censor science and might more aptly be named the “Censored Science” rule. 

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Some of the most important, highest quality environmental health studies do not have publicly available underlying data. These studies are based on the medical histories and other personal information of individuals—private information protected by researchers under laws and ethical standards. The scientific community vets these studies through effective existing mechanisms, peer review and reproducing findings across multiple studies, and does not require original data to do so. Additionally, many important studies have been conducted in the past, or in other countries, so that data are not available. Nothing in the proposal can compel researchers to make their data publicly available.

 

The proposal points to techniques for maintaining privacy in public datasets. But those techniques are burdensome, costly, and not always effective. The Congressional Budget Office studied a similar approach put forward in proposed legislation and concluded that the costs would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, even while valuable scientific information would be excluded.

Here are three examples of the types of protections at risk if the proposed Censored Science rule is finalized:

In 2001, EPA set new standards for the maximum amount of arsenic in drinking water. These safeguards relied heavily on studies performed in the ‘60s and ‘70s that documented the relationship between arsenic in well water and skin diseases. The studies were peer reviewed and published in prestigious journals. The data are decades old and include confidential individual health information—it’s unlikely they could be made publicly available.  

Individuals across the nation participated in a 10-year, EPA-sponsored “MESA Air” study linking air pollution to heart disease. The initial study and ongoing related research show that air pollution contributes to cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in America. EPA has highlighted and relied on this study to maintain strong protections against dangerous air pollution. Yet most of the underlying data is confidential health information that likely cannot be made publicly available. Under the proposed rule, EPA could be forced to ignore this seminal research.

Across the country, perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are contaminating drinking water supplies. Two of the most studied, PFOA and PFOS, are associated collectively with cancer and reproductive and developmental toxicity. In May, Pruitt indicated plans to develop regulatory drinking water limits on these substances. Large studies involving private medical data are central to developing these limits, but they could be barred by EPA’s proposal.

Rather than enhance transparency in any meaningful way, this proposal would block EPA from using critical scientific studies to protect lives. That would be a tragedy, with impacts that echo for decades to come.

It is now up to Mr. Pruitt’s successor, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, to decide if that will happen.

Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MS, MPH, is the Michael and Lori Milken Dean of Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Dr. Goldman was the Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances in the EPA from 1993 through 1998. She is a member of the board of trustees for the Environmental Defense Fund and is a member of a number of organizations including the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Protection Network.