Come On, EPA! Don’t Give Polluters a Scientific Smokescreen.


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Trump administration has developed a way to make pollution sound appealing. President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has a plan to relax regulations to allow Americans to be exposed to more dirty air. But the agency has dressed it up to look like it’s just advocating the use of stronger, more transparent science.

The policy, sometimes called the “secret science” plan, was released in the spring of 2018, and after some criticism, went back to the drawing board for revision. The idea was to raise the scientific bar for studies that can be considered in making regulations — in particular, disallowing those in which data on human subjects was kept secret for privacy reasons. This week, the New York Times published a leaked version of the updated policy. Critics say the new plan’s scope is even worse than the original — better for industry, that is, worse for people who breathe air.

How much scientific proof do you need to recognize that pollution is bad for you? There are already dozens of studies showing connections between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease, and if that isn’t enough, there’s growing evidence linking air pollution with Alzheimer’s Disease.

One of the most prominent studies that might be disallowed is a 1993 Harvard project that tracked 22,000 people in six cities and led to the conclusion that air pollution caused some people to die. But the complete raw data aren’t available for others to recheck the results.

Critics quoted in the journal Science and the New York Times said that the new policy would allow the EPA to throw out high quality studies where some personal data were kept secret to protect the privacy of human subjects — possibly disqualifying studies that conclude that typical environmental exposure to mercury and lead had damaged the brains of kids. (Thanks to resulting regulations, lead exposures are a fraction of what they were in the mid-20th century).

There are reasonable arguments about how to balance scientific openness with personal privacy. But the problems of resolving that issue shouldn’t open the door to easing up on polluters.

There’s a dishonesty at the core of the new EPA policy, which is revealed in former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s reference to the replication crisis — a problem that has beset psychology and other areas of social science, where many researchers seemed to misunderstand the statistical tools they were using. Similar problems have plagued some areas of medical research, where a publish-or-perish culture encouraged bad practices.

Several attempts to systematically replicate a sample of published experiments has shown that many were not as solid as claimed. That was all too common in the social sciences.

In contrast, there are dozens of follow-up studies on air pollution concluding that it is killing people. Sometimes follow-ups show that a supposed threat isn’t real — as do the hundreds of studies on vaccines that have debunked an initial claim that they’re linked to autism. The important thing is that there’s a mountain of research.

But historically, environmental studies have tended to underplay risk. Industry-funded studies on lead allowed millions of children to be exposed to brain-damaging levels. The dangers of climate change were underestimated. Some journalists, trying to hype the replication problem, wrongly insinuated that all of science was corrupt. The Trump people are using that popular misconception to make themselves look good while making the world a worse place to live.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.