Health Experts Rebut Trump EPA Censoring Science Rule

In one of his last acts of aggression against the public before resigning, corrupt and disgraced Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a rule to restrict the scientific studies the EPA can rely on to set safety standards for toxic chemicals. Now, his replacement, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, will presumably continue to do the bidding of polluters by finalizing it.

Ironically called the science transparency rule, the truth is that public health will be seriously harmed. That’s why forty doctors and scientists are releasing a new letter that raises alarms about the rule and the harms it would bring about.

“As scientists and health professionals we recognize the importance of data sharing and replicability in scientific practice and discourse,” the experts, part of Project TENDR, write in a public letter to EPA. This proposed rule is about stifling science used by EPA, not improving it.” (see health experts’ letter here)

The experts, with careers devoted to protecting children and their families from exposures to neurotoxic chemicals, say the proposal could also undercut existing safeguards, regulations that have led to protections against toxic air pollution, lead in drinking water and dangerous pesticides such as chlorpyrifos.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc, FAAP, a pediatrician and globally-renowned expert on childhood harm from chemical pollutants, warned: "If you implement this proposed rule, the inevitable consequence is that chemicals with potential to damage children's brains and nervous systems will remain longer on the market. Many thousands of children - born and not yet born - who could have been protected against these chemicals will be unnecessarily exposed. Brain damage with loss of intelligence, disruption of behavior and diminished lifetime achievement will be the result. Is this the legacy you wish to leave for America's children?"

The Economist wrote about the Rule in an editorial bluntly titled, “Swamp Science: Scott Pruitt embarks on a campaign to stifle science at the EPA”, emphasizing that this proposed rule is really about blocking information used by EPA to protect our health.

Proposed Rule Would Rollback Health Protections

The rule, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” prohibits the agency from setting regulations that are supported, in part or whole, by data that is not publicly available for re-analysis or that cannot be replicated. It will hamstring EPA’s use of scientific information, which can only harm EPA’s work quality and public credibility.

There are many reasons why a  study cannot be made fully public, or replicated. For example, the original raw data may no longer exist, the original exposure conditions may no longer exist (such as lead exposures from leaded gasoline), and patient protection and privacy rules may prevent full disclosure of the raw data and information. EPA has long-established and transparent methods for evaluating data in these situations.

The rule would block the studies used to set air pollution regulations that will have prevented more than 230,000 premature deaths by 2020, with benefits valued at 30 times the cost of the Clean Air Act, according to EPA scientists and technical experts.

The rule would also block the studies that protect children from lead poisoning in air, water, and soil (see Project TENDR experts letter for details and study citations). And, it would block the studies of harmed children that support an EPA proposed ban on the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, which Pruitt has already rolled back.

The proposed rule may be the most unpopular proposal from the Trump EPA to date, which is saying a lot given the stiff competition (for example, green lighting the brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos, and the deadly solvents methylene chloride and NMP in paint strippers – see NRDC Trump Watch for a too-long list of assaults on the environment and health). Picking the most unpopular guest among the Trump Party-goers is tough, but I think this could be it.

How Bad Is the Proposed Rule?

It is so unscientific that the editors of Science, Nature, the PLOS journals and the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science published a joint statement opposing the Pruitt Proposed Rule: “It does not strengthen policies based on scientific evidence to limit the scientific evidence that can inform them... Excluding relevant studies simply because they do not meet rigid transparency standards will adversely affect decision-making processes.”

It is so politically motivated that the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) took issue with both the content of the proposed rule, and with its attempt to position itself as consistent with recommendations from a previous BPC report. BPC says, “we want to be clear that the proposed rule is not consistent with the BPC report in substance or intent.” (Italics in original.) In fact, BPC recommendations are to “cast a wide net in reviewing studies relevant to regulatory policy,” not to block science.

It is so wrongly conceived that policy legal expert Bob Sussman wrote that the proposal runs counter to existing environmental statutes that direct EPA to use the best available science. “The Clean Air Act explicitly requires that air quality criteria ‘accurately reflect’ the ‘latest scientific knowledge’ which is ‘useful’ in assessing ‘all identifiable effects on public health…’ This approach—which entails an inclusive analysis of all available studies to determine the ‘weight of the scientific evidence’ and ‘best available science’ for the case at hand—cannot be reconciled with the automatic rejection of studies based solely on the extent of access to underlying data.” (Mr. Sussman is counsel to Safer Chemicals Health Families, a coalition that includes NRDC.)

It is so flawed that the Environmental Protection Network (EPN), a bipartisan volunteer group of former government experts including EPA scientists and policy staff said, “The proposal disingenuously positions itself as somehow supporting the value of ‘transparency’ when in fact what it does is make it impossible for EPA to consider the full array of well conducted and peer reviewed scientific studies of the health effects of pollution.” The EPN has a number of excellent summary and analyses documents on its website.

The rule itself is so lacking in transparency that even EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) – which Pruitt stacked with industry-affiliated consultants --identified many serious problems with the rule and recommended that they review it before moving forward (see SAB June 28 letter ).

The Attorneys General of New York, California, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC wrote that, "In light of the far-reaching impact the proposal could have on EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment, we ask that you withdraw the proposed rule and convene a process to first consult with the National Academy of Sciences and other independent scientists and science organizations before deciding whether any proposed changes to EPA’s current use of scientific evidence are in order."  

Fundamentally, this is a rule that purports to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It should be abandoned. It cannot be fixed.

EPA is holding a public hearing on the rule on Tuesday July 17, and taking public comments until August 16th. See EPA’s website for information on how to participate in the hearing and submit comments.

More information at my previous blog and that of my colleague, Dr. Vijay Limaye.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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