A man goes fishing in the Potomac River as emissions spew out of the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Md. An effort to prevent health studies from factoring into environmental regulations has drawn howls of protest from scientists. Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

By Melissa Healy
24 August 2018

(Los Angeles Times) – When the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a proposal this week to give states more latitude in regulating pollution from power plants within their borders, it came with a sobering forecast of its likely impact on Americans’ health.

By 2030, adoption of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule could lead to 470 to 1,400 additional premature deaths each year because of an increase in tiny airborne particles. Children with asthma could wind up missing 21,000 extra days of school annually, and up to 48,000 more people could experience “exacerbated asthma” as air quality deteriorates.

Those estimates were made possible by decades-old studies that linked the rise and fall of microscopic airborne particulates — smog and other emissions from automobile tailpipes, factories, and other industrial sources — to predictable patterns of premature death. It’s the kind of analysis that federal regulators will be barred from considering if the EPA adopts a controversial plan ostensibly designed to enhance the quality of research.

The Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science initiative would allow rulemakers to base their decisions only on studies whose raw data is available to the public. That way, anyone who doubts the findings can make their own attempt to validate, or discredit, them.

“The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said when he unveiled the initiative in April. “Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives.”

Who could possibly be against that?

Nearly 70 medical societies and public health groups, including the American Medical Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Assn. and the American Assn. for Cancer Research. In their view, it’s a backhanded attack on the key air pollution studies that forced companies to spend billions of dollars on cleaner factories and better equipment.

“I can’t come up with any explanation other than that they want to make this data available to vested interests by making it available to everyone,” said George Thurston, an environmental medicine researcher at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine who opposes the EPA initiative. “The problem is that people with an agenda can statistically manipulate the data and come up with really inappropriate conclusions. And if they have a profit motive, that’s likely to happen.”

Even the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board is skeptical. The board, which was not consulted on the transparency proposal, voted in May to review the initiative itself.

To Thurston, the tactic has a familiar ring.

Twenty years ago, he said, the EPA was examining research on the health effects of secondhand smoke and whether they warranted new restrictions on smokers. In a bid to gain access to the research and cast doubt on the findings, tobacco-industry allies pressed the agency to adopt “transparency” measures. The measure found its way into a House appropriations bill in 1998, but never made it into law.

“If you challenge the fundamentals, you challenge the finding,” said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of policy for the American Lung Assn. “That’s why you’re seeing this proposal.” [more]

Scientists blast EPA effort that would discredit health research in the name of 'transparency'

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