Trump's EPA says air pollution can't kill you

Spoiler alert: it can.

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The EPA’s air pollution denial

According to The World Health Organization, at least 7 million people die prematurely every year from exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

According to the United State Environmental Protection Agency, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Who knows, am I right?

Now, let’s be clear: No one at the EPA has ever said the exact words, “This agency rejects the scientific consensus that air pollution causes premature deaths.” That would be a dumb thing for them to do. Surely, that would stoke widespread outrage from both the left and the right.

But that’s exactly what the agency’s new science policy means. First reported by The New York Times yesterday, the so-called “transparency” policy forbids the EPA from using scientific research that includes confidential data about human subjects. Most of the research showing how air pollution damages public health contains confidential data about human subjects. Therefore, the EPA won’t be able to use that research to justify regulating air pollution or climate change.

In other words, air pollution denial is becoming U.S. policy for the first time.

Air pollution denial: The new climate denial

The EPA’s new science policy has been in the works since Trump took office.

It is a key priority of Steve Milloy, a former tobacco and fossil fuel industry lobbyist who served on Trump’s EPA transition team. Milloy spoke extensively about his desire to de-regulate air pollution at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in 2017:

“My particular interest is air pollution,” Milloy said, alleging that EPA’s scientists are inherently biased. “These people validate and rubber-stamp the EPA’s conclusion that air pollution kills people.” Milloy also said, baselessly, that EPA scientists are “paying for the science it wants,” and that Trump must change the research process at the agency.

To Milloy’s delight, Trump has since followed suit.

In yesterday’s New York Times story about the EPA’s new science policy, Milloy said his “original goal” was to stop the agency from using two landmark air pollution studies from Harvard University and the American Cancer Society. These studies—which rely on the health data of thousands of people—definitively link polluted air to premature deaths.

For decades, the EPA has used these studies to justify strong air pollution and climate regulations. But the fossil fuel industry says these studies aren’t trustworthy, because they rely on health data that is confidential due to privacy laws. Though hundreds of scientists have approved these studies through extensive peer review, the EPA agrees with the industry. The EPA is currently run by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist.

Still, scientists and public health professionals have been pushing back since the rule was first proposed. Last year, for example, the entirety of Harvard University wrote in an extensive letter that the “rule will wreak havoc on public health, medical, and scientific research and undermine the protection of public health and safety.” The school warned that the EPA’s rule could “disqualify high-quality science that supports some of the EPA’s strongest regulations on lead, arsenic, hormone-disrupting chemicals, and—of course—air pollution.”

Indeed, most of the 600,000 public comments about the rule have been in opposition. From the Times:

The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners said it was “deeply concerned” that the rule would lead to the exclusion of studies, “ultimately resulting in weaker environmental and health protections and greater risks to children’s health.” The National Center for Science Education said ruling out studies that do not use open data “would send a deeply misleading message, ignoring the thoughtful processes that scientists use to ensure that all relevant evidence is considered.” The Medical Library Association and the Association of Academic Health Science Libraries said the proposal “contradicts our core values.”

Still, the EPA “does not appear to have taken any of the opposition into consideration,” the Times reported yesterday. It will attempt to finalize the rule by 2020.

The tobacco industry playbook

When I reported on this potential rule change back in 2018, I spoke to Stan Glantz, a professor of tobacco control at the University of California San Francisco. Glantz told me that the EPA’s proposal mimicked old tobacco industry tactics to suppress science showing second-hand smoke harmed public health.

“[The tobacco industry] realized that, rather than fighting every single study that came out linking them to cancer, if they could get the rules of evidence changed, they wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Glantz said.

This feels particularly relevant now, given the fact that fossil fuel companies are increasingly facing tobacco-type lawsuits over their lies about climate change. Big Oil companies spent years mimicking Big Tobacco’s business strategies as a way to gain profit. And even though they’re now facing the same fate as Big Tobacco—death by litigation—they’re still clutching to the industry’s failed tactics.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will hold a hearing on the EPA’s new science policy on Wednesday. We’ll be watching!  

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