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Trump EPA Erects New Barriers To Crucial Science

A new EPA rule will make it more difficult for the regulators to use some scientific studies about the connection between pollution and health.
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A new EPA rule will make it more difficult for the regulators to use some scientific studies about the connection between pollution and health.

The Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new rule restricting the types of scientific studies its own regulators can use to rein in pollution, in the Trump administration's latest effort to undercut the use of science in establishing public health standards.

The rule goes into effect on Wednesday and applies to all future EPA regulations. It puts a premium on scientific studies that are based on underlying data that is available to other scientists or to the public. Studies that do not meet that standard, which could include major epidemiological studies, will be given less weight by regulators unless the head of the EPA personally intervenes. The rule also requires that the agency disclose which studies it uses to set future pollution limits.

"The American public deserves to know which studies we are using to craft our regulations, which of those studies are key or pivotal to our decisions and, to the extent possible, that data should be available for the public to see," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an announcement about the rule. The event was hosted by the conservative think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The EPA contends that the rule will improve public trust in environmental regulations by letting people know more about the data that regulators use to make their decisions about air and water pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. These cause climate change and particle pollution that can exacerbate chronic diseases that make people more susceptible to severe COVID-19.

But many scientists and public health groups warn that the new approach will instead put the health of Americans at risk by excluding rigorous studies.

"This rule will enable the exclusion of highly relevant scientific evidence from the policymaking process," Sudip Parikh, chief executive of the national science advocacy group American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in an email. Parikh argues that the rule "directly impedes [the EPA's] ability to use the best data and evidence in its mission to protect human health and the environment."

Epidemiological studies that examine the relationship between pollution and health sometimes rely on massive amounts of medical data that is anonymized or kept confidential in order to protect the privacy of study participants. However, rigorous scientific studies are reviewed by multiple experts in the field before publication and that peer-review process includes an examination of how the underlying data was analyzed.

Given the rigor of the modern scientific review process, the EPA's own internal board of scientific advisers raised questions about the new rule. When the board reviewed an earlier draft of the new rule last year, they noted that there is already a trend among scientists toward making data publicly available when it's possible to do so without compromising confidentiality. The EPA advisers said that the new rule could "decrease efficiency and reduce scientific integrity."

This is the latest in a string of controversial decisions the EPA has made in the final stretch of President Trump's administration. In December, the agency decided not to strengthen air quality standards for ozone and soot, and it enacted a new rule that requires future clean air regulations to weigh economic costs of curbing pollution while ignoring benefits, such as the deaths that could be avoided.

American Lung Association chief executive Harold Wimmer calls the new science rule "a dangerous step in the wrong direction — one that threatens the integrity and use of the best science, and consequently threatens our health and lives."

Last year, the association co-signed a letter opposing the new rule, along with more than 50 medical, environmental and scientific groups including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and the American Public Health Association.

"It has no merits from the standpoint of science or transparency, and it will make it vastly harder for the agency to do its job of protecting public health and the environment," Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national science advocacy group, wrote in an email after the final rule was announced. "The damage will fall hardest on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities who already bear disproportionate harms from environmental hazards in the air, water and soil."

The Biden administration could remove or rewrite the rule, but it would take months, if not years. Because the rule gives the EPA administrator the power to override the limits on which scientific studies EPA regulators can use, the incoming administration could essentially sidestep the rule while it works to undo it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.