A version of this article appeared earlier in Bloomberg
William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, died last week. Ruckelshaus laid the foundation for environmental rules that have improved the quality of our air and water and made science the cornerstone of the EPA. Yet his legacy, and our environment, are now in grave peril.
Andrew Wheeler, President Donald Trump’s EPA administrator, is working to demolish the edifice that Ruckelshaus built by destroying the scientific foundation on which it stands. In November, the New York Times revealed that Wheeler is seeking to undermine the role of science in the process by which environmental standards are established and safeguarded. A draft EPA proposal would require medical studies used by the EPA to include raw data, including confidential medical records of study subjects. Otherwise the EPA could not act on a study’s conclusions.
Wheeler cannot actually make the knowledge contained in previous scientific studies disappear. But most studies have not been conducted under the curious standards he now supports. By demanding the disclosure of confidential patient data — something most scientists are unable to provide, due to the privacy rights of study subjects — he would render countless studies null and void. As a result, an enormous body of public health science would be disregarded by the EPA in setting environmental standards.
Instead, the EPA would rely on the limited body of research that does not rest on confidential data, limiting the scope of science in policy making and forcing regulators to ignore risks revealed in the full scientific data base. Producing new research to replicate the old studies could easily require another 15 years, during which polluting industries would be newly empowered to subvert air, water and chemical standards.
In an open letter, the editors of six leading scientific journals pointed out that “foundational science from years past — research on air quality and asthma, for example, or water quality and human health — could be deemed by the EPA to be insufficient for informing our most significant public health issues. That would be a catastrophe.”
We don’t have to speculate about the scientific knowledge that Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, and his patrons in the chemical and energy industries most wish to neuter with this proposal. Two key research studies, the “Six Cities” study published in 1993 by Harvard University researchers, and a 1995 follow-up conducted by the American Cancer Society, which confirmed the Six Cities results, are the twin pillars of air quality standards adopted by the EPA and international health agencies.
The studies established that fine particles, the sort belched by coal plants and the like, are the most deadly form of air pollution. Pollution abatement efforts based on these studies are estimated to have added 2.7 years to the life of the average American, saving almost 200,000 lives last year alone.
Yet these are not the only studies likely to be targeted. Science that documents the risks to children of lead exposure, or the links between the neurotoxin mercury, from coal power plants, to birth defects, or the risks of the pesticide chlorpyrifos to rural Americans, would also be vulnerable.
Restricting the use of data in governance has not been a characteristic of democratic societies. Attacks on ideas are common. But the Trump administration’s attack on knowledge is especially pernicious.
The World Health Organization has determined that air pollution is the world’s fourth-leading cause of death. Exposure to air pollution already kills 107,000 Americans annually — almost double the U.S. toll from the entire Vietnam War. If Wheeler succeeds in gutting scientific standards, millions of Americans, and billions around the globe, would become even more vulnerable to toxic pollutants.