We’re Standing Up Against EPA’s Attempt to Censor Science

NRDC submitted comments telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop this unfounded and illegal idea.
Credit: Chris LeBoutillier

When former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his plan on “secret science” in April, it was immediately clear that this was an unprecedented attempt to restrict the type of science that the agency uses to conduct its work. The more time we’ve spent analyzing it, the more dangerous this proposal appears. These restrictions on science would have far-reaching consequences and hamstring EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. The proposal would undermine the clean air and water standards that protect millions of Americans living in every corner of our country from toxic pollution.

That’s why today, NRDC submitted 127 pages of comments to the EPA opposing this plan and telling the agency to drop this unfounded and illegal idea.

Credit: Alicia Petresc

The proposal is poorly-conceived and attempts to address a “problem” that does not exist. EPA has used high quality public health studies for decades in order to understand how environmental contaminants, like air pollution, affect human health. For example, the hundreds of research studies documenting the health harms of air pollution collectively form a strong scientific foundation underlying EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. As result, pollution from factories, refineries and other industrial sources is down 60 percent since 1970.  Research shows that, over the past 30 years, cleaner air has extended the average American lifespan, while reducing the number of cases of heart disease, emphysema and asthma. In attacking this sound research, the Trump EPA seeks to undermine established science, clearing the way for future regulatory rollbacks that would help polluters but harm our health.

A Flawed Proposal

The problems with the proposal are many, from its flawed premise to a lack of clear thought on how the proposal could feasibly be implemented. Our comments highlight these problems in detail, and point out specific reasons why the proposal should be discarded, including:

  • There is no legal basis for the proposal. EPA is required to take the "best available science” into account for its work, and any proposal to censor that science is not grounded in law. While we often hear many in Congress complain that the agency was moving beyond its legal mandate in prior years, this is a crystal clear example of the agency doing just that. It would be ironic if it weren’t so dangerous. Strangely, EPA itself acknowledges this weakness by asking public commenters to weigh in on the legal authority it has to make this proposal. This is not the way it’s supposed to work.
  • The proposal would place significant new restrictions on public health studies that quantify the costs of pollution to society, but it gives industry’s own studies a free pass.  As a result, the health benefits of pollution reductions could be artificially discounted while the costs of cleaning up our air, water, and land could be inflated. 
  • EPA calls into question data from robust air pollution and health studies such as the Harvard Six Cities study, because sensitive personal health data from this study has not been made public. This study has received a lot of attention over the years, and has been extensively, painstakingly, re-analyzed. These studies, conducted by independent investigators looking at the same raw data, have reconfirmed the original findings that air pollution is unhealthy. And other researchers who examined other individuals exposed to pollution have confirmed the same (not so surprising) result: Air pollution is bad for our health.  
  • EPA’s suggests that researchers should release all of their underlying data to the public for the sake of re-analysis, but it does not detail any plan or requirement that it in fact be reanalyzed. So, what would happen? Would genuine research be ignored by the EPA because no one re-analyzes it? Or, if it is re-analyzed, then what? Transparency sounds good, but the agency has failed to grapple with the harder question of scientific integrity and assessment.
  • The partial redaction of sensitive health information poses its own set of problems, because statistical models rely on the inclusion of potentially confounding variables (e.g., age, sex, home address health status, diet and alcohol consumption, smoking history) in order to isolate the pollution-health relationship with precision. While the agency says it wants to protect confidentiality, the information needed to determine the health effects is the kind of information that would also violate patient privacy, conflict with existing health privacy laws, and discourage Americans from participating in important health research.
  • Through this proposal, EPA also seeks to undercut decades of research into the dose-response (cause-effect) relationship between pollution exposures and health risks, in support of an agenda that could justify weaker pollution standards. The agency invites alternate modeling approaches and questionable fringe science instead of relying on the experts, who recommend a “no safe threshold” approach. Again, this has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with tilting the direction of the agency away from protecting public health and the environment and toward the protection of polluting industries.

NRDC Is Fighting Back

EPA’s proposal to censor science is misguided and threatens the health of us all, which is why we’re fighting back. If implemented, the proposal would undermine EPA’s work, drain its already limited resources, and ignore the science that has helped Americans live longer, healthier lives.

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