News & Politics

Scott Pruitt Wants to Stop the EPA from Using Science When Setting Regulations

The secretary continues his attempt to destroy the department.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delivers a speech to the National League of Cities. (March 14, 2017)
Photo Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Under the pretense of “transparency,” Scott Pruitt is preparing to radically reduce the studies which can be used in setting EPA policy. This will include disallowing data from many reports concerning the health effects of pollutants and contaminants in the environment. The ruling would not just block new studies, but eliminate the use of landmark reports that have long been used to limit human exposure to toxins, opening the door to a massive rollback of much of the environmental progress over the last fifty years.

While transparency may sound like an unvarnished good, this particular use of the word has long been floated around conservative circles as a justification for hiding data about the dangers of everything from particulates produced by power plants, to cancer-causing pesticides. The idea is that since many of these health studies include data that is private to the patients, and can’t fully be released to the public, by putting in a rule that says all data in a study must be public, these health studies can be ruled out en mass. Smaller, and more recent studies might be able to clear this new hurdle by going back to the patients involved and asking for special permission to release more information. But large public health studies done years or decades ago will have no way of meeting the new standard.

It’s a move that forces scientists and public health officials to go back to square one for the most basic protections of human health and environmental. With one simple phrase, Pruitt is implementing something little short of a reset button for the entire agency.

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Many scientists argue that applying a standard to public health and environmental studies that is not currently required by peer-reviewed journals would limit the information the EPA could take into account when crafting federal limits on everything from power-plant emissions to which chemicals can be used in agriculture and in homes. Some researchers collect personal data from subjects but pledge to keep it confidential — as was the case in a major 1993 study by Harvard University that established the link between fine particle air pollution and premature deaths. That practice would not be allowed under the new rule.

Squeezed between regulations that require keeping health records private, and Pruitt’s declaration that every iota of data in a study must be public, the result would simply be to throw out the vast majority of studies. Leaving Scott Pruitt free to regulate, and deregulate, as he sees fit.

Pruitt knows he’s on the right track to creating a pollution free-for-all.

On Monday, 985 scientists signed a letter organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists urging Pruitt not to forge ahead with the policy change.

The new rule is also expected to include stipulations for reproducability, with the idea that it’s not good science if it can’t be repeated by a disinterested third-party. But there would be no way to replicate studies that concerned people exposed to a harmful chemical or the aftereffects of a disaster like a storage leak or oil spill. 

Overall, the regulation—a repeat of one put forward and defeated in the House—is an exercise in double-speak, where “transparency” and “repeatability” become excuses to eliminate vital studies. From lead paint to the health effects of smoking, there is almost no study that could meet the standards being put forward by Pruitt. And, of course, he knows that. 

But it is the logical next step. Having eliminated the scientists from the EPA’s “science advisory boards,” all that’s left is to eliminate the science.

 

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Mark Sumner is the author of the nonfiction work "The Evolution of Everything" as well as several novels including "Devil's Tower."