UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Administrator Wheeler is Hiding the Truth About Formaldehyde

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

In a letter sent this week, the Union of Concerned Scientists along with the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Protection Network asked EPA’s Scientific Integrity office to investigate what seems to be political interference that occurred at the EPA in its recent suspension of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) formaldehyde risk assessment. In his responses to senators’ questions about the assessment earlier this year, Wheeler claimed that “Formaldehyde was not identified as a top priority.” Political appointees at the agency gave the same answer when asked by the GAO, in a recent report. But, in documents obtained through FOIA request, the Union of Concerned Scientists found evidence that EPA staff was not only interested in the formaldehyde risk assessment, but as of 2017 the air office had a “strong interest in the review and are anxious to see it completed” and told EPA’s acting science advisor, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta that “we have consistently identified formaldehyde as a priority.” Thus, the glaring omission of formaldehyde among the EPA’s list of prioritized chemicals issued this month smells more like political interference than lack of importance to me.

In a 2017 email obtained through FOIA request by the Union of Concerned Scientists,, an EPA staffer from the air office writes that formaldehyde is a priority for the program.

What happened to the formaldehyde assessment?

We know that the formaldehyde assessment was done and ready for review in the fall of 2017 and then all movement of the draft mysteriously stopped. In July 2017, the head of the National Center for Environmental Assessment which houses IRIS, Dr. Tina Bahadori, wrote to the former Office of Research and Development (ORD) head, Richard Yamada and other ORD staff to talk about a briefing that would occur that month on formaldehyde, and to inform them that “we have contracted the [National Academy of Sciences] to peer review this assessment. As a part of that agreement, we have requested that they convene a PUBLIC workshop in which they also gather data on NCEA/IRIS activities to be responsive to the NRC 2011 and 2014 recommendations to improve IRIS assessments.” The latter part of this agreement occurred in February 2018, but if the NAS was contracted to peer review the assessment, why did the EPA fail to follow through with moving the formaldehyde assessment to the next stage of the process if it was ready and the path was set?

Wheeler wrote this year that the EPA’s air and chemicals offices didn’t provide a list of priorities to him when he asked in 2018. But a non-response doesn’t mean the air office is lacking in priorities. A responsible administrator would follow-up with the program office pointing out the many hazardous air pollutants that have outdated risk values, including formaldehyde. Unless, of course, the administrator was actively working to keep formaldehyde off of the priority list to placate the chemical industry.

After all, the facts haven’t changed—formaldehyde is just as dangerous today as it was a year ago. It seems that political appointees at the EPA are playing a game of defeat-by-delay—willfully remaining ignorant of the facts by simply declining to to listen to the scientific opinions of their own staff experts.

Unfortunately for these appointees, they have a job to do—protect public health, based on the best available science. And they can’t evade their duties by pretending science doesn’t exist. That’s why we have scientific integrity policies in place—to make sure political interests don’t overrule the clear facts and the public good.

Emails show experts’ concern—and political leaders’ indifference

In the aforementioned email from the director of the Health and Environmental Impacts Division at the Office of Air Quality and Planning Services (OAQPS), Erika Sasser, to Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, she lays out how an updated risk assessment for formaldehyde would help the air office better protect public health. According to her, “having a current cancer unit risk estimate for formaldehyde is critical for the agency’s air toxics program, for use in 1) the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), 2) the Clean Air Act (CAA) section 112 risk and technology review (RTR) rulemakings, 3) evaluation of potential risks from on-road and nonroad mobile sources regulated under relevant sections of the CAA, and 4) regional and local-scale risk assessments.” Formaldehyde is not just an incidental air pollutant. Sasser wrote that, “more than 1.3 million tons of formaldehyde are emitted each year. While these emissions are from both natural sources and from stationary mobile anthropogenic sources, the [National Emissions Inventory] estimates that 42,000 industrial facilities emit formaldehyde. The National Air Toxics Assessments (NATA) shows that the entire US population is exposed to formaldehyde.” Sasser’s email was seen by politicals at the agency, forwarded to ORD’s Yamada by Bahadori.

In other documents we received from the EPA, it is clear that Dr. Bahadori spent months trying to get Yamada’s attention to the formaldehyde assessment and its release. In September, the American Chemistry Council wrote a letter to IRIS related to its draft formaldehyde assessment. NCEA’s Bahadori wrote back to the American Chemistry Council’s in October 2017 saying “we hope to complete the draft of this assessment as expeditiously as possible and make it available for public comment and peer review by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)” and “the only way to demonstrate our commitment to a scientifically robust and transparent formaldehyde assessment is to present the document for public comment and rigorous peer review by the NAS.”

On December 7, 2017, Bahadori wrote to Orme-Zavaleta and Yamada, “Just checking to see if you have an update on path forward for formaldehyde?” She followed up on December 20, 2017: “I wanted to follow up on the path forward for formaldehyde.” After getting a non-committal response from Orme-Zavaleta, Bahadori followed up again on January 2, 2018, “I wanted to follow up and see what the timeline for next steps might be for formaldehyde.” Bahadori was clearly doing her best to push the study through the political roadblock and was ignored. Now, she is being moved away from the IRIS program through the Office of Research and Development reorganization, which sources have told InsideEPA (paywalled), is likely as a result of her “efforts to advance IRIS.” Only in today’s EPA is the penalty for defending one’s own scientific program to be moved far away from leading that very group.

Dr. Tina Bahadori tried multiple times to get the former ORD head, Richard Yamada, interested in moving the IRIS formaldehyde assessment through the publication process.

A risk assessment caught up in layers of interference

We know the draft is done and was completed using rigorous scientific review methods, so why not just move it to peer review and public comment? The answer is simple: industry doesn’t like the findings that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. This assessment has been held up for over a decade thanks to pushback from the American Chemistry Council, that we have documented as a part of our Disinformation Playbook. And now, thanks to corporate capture of the current administration, top political officials appear to be doing the same thing from the inside to benefit their former employers and cronies. Former ORD head, Richard Yamada, was previously employed by long-time IRIS and formaldehyde-study-critic Lamar Smith. Current ORD head, David Dunlap, is a former staffer with Koch Industries of which a major formaldehyde emitter, Georgia Pacific, is a subsidiary. He has recused himself from matters pertaining to formaldehyde, but the agency’s track record on sticking to ethics agreements doesn’t give me the utmost confidence in his pledge.

Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA had a long list of industry clients (subscription required) at his lawfirm before joining the agency, and has been ignoring offers from his own scientists to brief him on the chemical. And let’s not forget Nancy Beck, a former American Chemistry Council staffer now responsible for implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) who has spent her tenure at the EPA checking industry’s demands of its wishlist. Formaldehyde will now be taken on by her office, which will mean a longer timeframe and a less comprehensive risk evaluation.

EPA’s scientific integrity office must investigate

As we write in our letter, “The completion and release of the IRIS assessment on formaldehyde would help inform science-based EPA regulations to better protect public health from this chemical. Conversely, permitting the suppression of this study to persist unchecked normalizes political interference at the agency and sends a message to career staff that their knowledge and expertise is not valued.” The EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy “prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other Agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific information.” The public has the right to know whether this has occurred in the suspension of the formaldehyde risk assessment at the EPA. Every day that goes by without the scientific information informing new technology and standards that could reduce formaldehyde exposure and related health risks is an egregious affront to the agency’s mission to protect public health.

Check out the rest of the documents we received from the EPA related to formaldehyde here.

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Science and Transparency: Harms to the Public Interest from Harassing Public Records Requests

Photo: Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay.

In my work as a professor and researcher in the Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I investigate the basic mechanisms underlying how exposure to toxic metals contribute to cellular effects and disease. My lab explores how exposures to environmental toxins, such as lead, manganese, and arsenic can cause or contribute to the development of diseases in humans. For example, some neurobehavioral and neurodegenerative disorders, such as learning deficits and Parkinsonism have been linked to elevated lead and manganese exposures in children and manganese exposures in adults, respectively.

California condor in flight. Lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

In my career spanning 25 years, I helped develop and apply a scientific method to identify environmental sources of the toxic metal lead in exposure and lead poisoning cases in children and wildlife. I helped develop laboratory methods for evaluating tissue samples, including a “fingerprinting” technique based on the stable lead isotope ratios found in different sources of lead that enables the matching of lead in blood samples to the source of the lead exposure.

In the early 2000s, I collaborated with graduate students, other research scientists, and several other organizations to investigate the sources of lead poisoning that was killing endangered California condors. Our research showed that a primary source of lead that was poisoning condors came from ingesting lead fragments in animals that had been shot with lead ammunition, and that this lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

Our work provided important scientific evidence of the harm that lead ammunition causes on non-target wildlife, and it supported the passage of AB 821 in 2007 and AB 711 in 2013, which led to partial and full bans on the use of lead ammunition for hunting in California.

Gun lobby attempts to discredit research

Because of our research, I and other collaborators received five public records requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) between December 2010 and  June 2013 from the law firm representing the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation seeking, in summary: all writings, electronic and written correspondence, analytical data, including raw data related to my research on lead in the environment and animals spanning a six year period. The very broad records requests asked for any and all correspondence and materials that contained the word “lead,” “blood,” “isotope,” “Condor,” “ammunition,” or “bullet.”  The request essentially sought everything I had done on lead research for this time period.

One seeming goal of the requestors was to discredit our findings and our reputations, as made apparent on a pro-hunting website that attempted to discredit our peer-reviewed and published findings. We initially responded that we would not release data and correspondence relating to unpublished research, because of our concern that we would lose control of the data and risk having it and our preliminary findings be published by others. As a result, the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation sued us in California Superior Court.  Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the university and researchers by narrowing the scope of the CPRA requests, and limiting the requests to published studies and the underlying data cited.

Impacts and harms from overly broad public records requests

These very broad public records requests have had a significant impact on my ability to fulfill my research and teaching duties as a faculty member at University of California, Santa Cruz. I personally have spent nearly 200 hours searching documents and electronic files for responsive materials; meeting with university counsel and staff; preparing and sitting for depositions, court hearings, and giving testimony. Our efforts to provide responsive materials are ongoing.

Overly broad public records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species (such as the California Condor) survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

While these requests have had a personal and professional impact on me as an individual, they have caused broader harms to the university’s mission of teaching and production of innovative research that benefits students, California residents, and the public at large. Impacts include:

  • Interfering with my ability to pursue research funding, conduct research, analyze data, and publish my research because of the time required to search and provide responsive materials that takes away from time invested in other duties.
  • Squelching scientific inquiry, and research communications and collaborations with colleagues or potential colleagues at other research institutions.

By chilling research and discouraging graduate students and collaborators from pursuing investigations into topics that could put them at odds with powerful interests, these types of expansive records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

Why I support modernizing the California Public Records Act

I chose to testify in front of the California Assembly Committee on the Judiciary in support of AB 700 and the effort to modernize the California Public Records Act to protect the freedom to research and to help  streamline the ability of California public universities to process and manage public records requests. This bill establishes very narrow exceptions for researchers to protect unpublished data and some peer correspondence, which would help prevent task diversion, reputational damage, and encourage inquiry and knowledge production at public universities across the state. AB 700 would also reduce the serious burden from expansive and overly-broad records requests on researchers and on the courts and the long backlog of records requests. I think this bill strikes the right balance between public transparency and privacy for research. Ultimately, the public will be better served if the state provides more clarity about what information should be disclosable under the California Public Records Act.


Donald Smith is Professor of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He received his PhD in 1991 and he joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1996. He has over 20 years experience and published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in environmental health research, with an emphasis on exposures and neurotoxicology of environmental agents, including the introduction, transport and fate of metals and natural toxins in the environment, exposure pathways to susceptible populations, and the neuromolecular mechanisms underlying neurotoxicity.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: Gavin Emmons Photo: Donald Smith

What to Expect When You’re Expecting the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Peter Merholz/Flickr

Pregnancy Advice: Caffeine’s ok. Some caffeine is ok. No caffeine.

Breastfeeding Advice: Start solids at 4 months. Start solids at 6 months. Exclusively breastfeed for one year.

First Foods Advice: Homemade baby food. Store-bought baby food. Spoon feeding. Baby-led weaning.

My experience of being pregnant and having a baby in modern times has meant getting conflicting advice from the different sources I consulted, specifically surrounding nutrition. Depending on the google search or midwife I spoke to, I heard different daily amounts of caffeine suitable while pregnant. Depending on the lactation consultant that popped into my hospital room, I heard different levels of concern about the amount I was feeding my newborn. And now that I’m about to start solid foods with my six-month old, I have heard conflicting information about when, how, and what to start feeding my child. How is it so difficult to find what the body of evidence says about these simple questions that parents have had since the dawn of time? When I discovered that past editions of the Dietary Guidelines didn’t address the critical population of pregnant women and infants from birth to two years, I wondered how it was possible that there was this huge gap in knowledge and guidance for such an important developmental stage. That’s why I’m very excited that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) will be examining scientific questions specific to this population that will inform the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines and have recently begun that process.

In the meantime, I will be starting my daughter on solids this week and have been trying to find science-supported best practices. It has been shockingly hard to navigate and I became reminded of the interesting world of the baby food industry that I became acquainted with as I researched and wrote about added sugar guidelines specifically for the 2016 UCS report, Hooked for Life.

The history of baby food and nutrition guidelines

Amy Bentley’s Inventing Baby Food, explains that the baby and children’s food market as we know it today is a fairly new construction, stemming from the gradual industrialization of the food system throughout the last century. Early on in the history of baby food marketing, a strong emphasis was placed on convincing parents and the medical community of the healthfulness of baby food through far-reaching ad campaigns and industry-funded research. The Gerber family began making canned, pureed fruits and vegetables for babies in 1926 and in 1940 began to focus entirely on baby foods. During this time, it was considered a new practice to introduce solid foods to babies before one year. In order to convince moms of the wholesomeness of its products, Gerber commissioned research touting the health benefits of canned baby foods in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the company launched advertising campaigns in the Journal and women’s magazines. Quickly, Gerber’s popularity and aggressive marketing campaign correlated with the decrease in age of earlier introduction of solid foods as a supplement to breast milk. Earlier introduction of foods meant an expansion of baby food market share, which meant big sales for Gerber.

All the while, there were no federal guidelines issued for infants. Gerber took advantage of this gap in 1990 when they released their own booklet, Dietary Guidelines for Infants, which glossed over the impacts of sugar consumption, for example, by telling readers that, “Sugar is OK, but in moderation…A Food & Drug Administration study found that sugar has not been shown to cause hyperactivity, diabetes, obesity or heart disease. But tooth disease can be a problem.” The FDA study that Gerber refers to was heavily influenced by industry sponsorship, and the chair of the study later went on to work at the Corn Refiner’s Association, a trade group representing the interests of high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers. In fact, evidence has since linked excessive added sugar consumption with incidence of chronic disease including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months using infant formulas to supplement if necessary. AAP suggests that complementary foods are introduced around 4 to 6 months with continued breastfeeding until one year. But what foods, how much, and when is a little harder to parse out. Children’s food preferences are predicted by early intake patterns but can change with learning and exposure, and flavors from maternal diet influence a baby’s senses and early life experiences. There’s research that shows that early exposure to a range of foods and textures is associated with their acceptance later on. And of course, not all babies and families are alike and that’s okay! There are differences related to cultural norms in the timing of introduction of food and the types of food eaten. Infants are very adaptable and can handle different ways of feeding.

There’s a lot of science out there to wade through, but it is not available in an easy-to-understand format from an independent and reliable government source. That’s what the 2020 Dietary Guidelines have to offer.

2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines: What to expect

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the gold standard for nutrition advice in the United States and is statutorily required to be released every five years by the Department of Human Health Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These guidelines provide us with recommendations for achieving a healthy eating pattern based on the “preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Historically, the recommendations have been meant for adults and children two years and older and have not focused on infants through age one and pregnant women as a subset of the population.

The freshly chartered DGAC will be charged with examining scientific questions relating to the diets of the general child and adult population, but also about nutrition for pregnant women and infants that will be hugely beneficial to all moms, dads, and caregivers out there looking for answers.

Credit: USDA

While I was pregnant, my daughter was in the lower percentile for weight and I was told by one doctor to increase my protein intake and another that that wouldn’t matter. I would have loved to know with some degree of certainty whether there was any relationship between what I was or wasn’t eating and her growth. One of the questions to be considered by DGAC is the relationship between dietary patterns during pregnancy and gestational weight gain. I also wonder about the relationship between my diet while breastfeeding and whether there’s anything I should absolutely be eating to give my daughter all the nutrients she needs to meet her developmental milestones. DGAC will be looking at that question (for both breastmilk and formula) as well as whether and how diet during pregnancy and while nursing impact the child’s risk of food allergies. The committee will also be evaluating the evidence on complementary feeding and whether the timing, types of, or amounts of food have an impact on the child’s growth, development, or allergy risk.

At the first DGAC meeting on March 29-3o, the USDA, HHS, and DGAC acknowledged that there are still limits in evaluating the science on these populations due to a smaller body of research. Unbelievably, there’s still so much we don’t know about breast milk and lactation, and in addition to government and academic scholarship, there are really interesting mom-led research projects emerging to fill that gap.

The Dietary Guidelines are not just useful for personal meal planning and diet decisions but they also feed directly into the types of food made available as a part of the USDA programs that feed pregnant women and infants, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Having guidelines for infants on sugar intake in line with the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no added sugar for children under two years old, would mean some changes to the types of foods offered as a part of these programs.

Nutrition guidelines will be a tool in the parent toolbelt

 But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve researched and written about this issue and now lived it, is that while the scientific evidence is critical, there are a whole lot of other factors that inform decisions about how we care for our children. Guidelines are after all just that. As long as babies are fed and loved, they’ll be okay. What the guidelines are here to help us figure out is how we might be able to make decisions about their nutrition that will set them up to be as healthy as possible. And what parent wouldn’t want the tools to do that?

As I wait anxiously for the report of the DGAC to come out next year, I will do what all parents and caregivers have done before me which is do the best I can. I have amazing resources at my disposal in my pediatrician, all the moms and parents I know, and local breastfeeding organizations. Whether my daughter’s first food ends up being rice cereal, pureed banana, or chunks of avocado, it is guaranteed to be messy, emotional, and the most fun ever, just like everything else that comes with parenthood.

Photo: Peter Merholz/Flickr

Uncharted Territory: The EPA’s Science Advisors Just Called Out Administrator Wheeler

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler Photo: USDA/Flickr

Yesterday the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) published a letter to Administrator Andrew Wheeler making recommendations on the agency’s approach to updating the ambient air pollution standard for particulate matter (PM). Chiefly, the science advisors have now acknowledged the group has inadequate expertise to conduct the review.

We are now in uncharted territory with the EPA in a tough position on both its PM and ozone pollution standard updates. Here are some key highlights from the letter and their implications.

CASAC asks that the particulate matter review panel be reinstated

“The CASAC recommends that the EPA reappoint the previous CASAC PM panel (or appoint a panel with similar expertise) as well as adding expertise…,” the committee members write in their consensus comments.

This is significant. Last October, then Acting Administrator Wheeler left CASAC high and dry by disbanding the particulate matter review panel—a group of experts that boosted the span of expertise CASAC and the EPA had access to in their review. The ~20-person pollutant review panels have for decades augmented CASAC’s expertise, helping to review the EPA’s science assessment on particulate matter and health and welfare effects. Since that time, I (and many, many, many others) have repeatedly called on the EPA to reinstate the panel.

In November, a letter from former ozone review panel members asked EPA leaders to reinstate the panel. In December, a letter from former PM panel members asked the same, and this group sent a second letter in March. A separate letter from former CASAC chairs asked for the panel as well. And an additional letter  from 206 air pollution and public health experts asked that the panel be brought back. This is on top of many other public comments echoing similar concerns from scientists, scientific societies, and other experts in the air quality and health arena. Since November, CASAC members themselves have been saying they need more expertise, but the CASAC Chair had ignored these pleas, until now.

The fact that the committee now agrees it needs the panel is important. It sends a clear signal to the EPA administrator that the process for the review of the science informing the PM standard is inadequate. And the committee lays this out in no uncertain terms, declaring that, “Additional expertise is needed for [CASAC] to provide a thorough review of the [PM] National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) documents. The breadth and diversity of evidence to be considered exceeds the expertise of the statutory CASAC members, or indeed of any seven individuals.” This is of course what we’ve been saying all along.

This acknowledgement of needed expertise puts agency leadership in a tough spot, given that just last week EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed that CASAC had a “good balance of expertise” despite disbanding of the panel. With an administrator who directly contradicts his agency’s science advisors, what’s the EPA to do? One thing is clear, this is an atypical process and it is sure to face legal challenges.

Chair Cox’s views on causality have been cast aside

CASAC Chair Dr. Tony Cox released a draft of this letter on March 7, which included eyebrow-raising language asking the EPA to throw away the time-tested and scientifically backed weight-of-the-evidence approach it has long used to assess the links between air pollutants and health effects. (More on Cox’s proposal and why its problematic in my Science magazine piece here).

In the final letter, this language on manipulative causality has thankfully been outsourced to Cox’s individual comments and a few places where it notes that “some CASAC members think…” This is considerably dampened from the draft letter where it appeared as a consensus recommendation for upending EPA’s weight-of-the-evidence process for developing a science-based PM standard.

The committee still cannot agree on scientific facts

The final letter has maintained language noting that CASAC could not come to agreement on the relationship between fine particle pollution (PM2.5 ) and early death, writing, “CASAC did not reach consensus on the causality determination of mortality from PM2.5 exposure.” This is striking given that the link between fine particulate matter exposure and early death is well-documented. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in different scientific studies, in different locations, and at different concentrations. Past CASACs and PM panels as well as some members of the divided current committee have acknowledged this relationship, and yet some members of the current committee are breaking with past science advisors and the greater scientific community.

CASAC criticizes the EPA’s science assessment

As in the draft letter, CASAC continue to be highly critical of the EPA’s science assessment, insisting on the document’s “Lack of comprehensive, systematic review.”  (But who are they to judge if they’ve already admitted they aren’t the appropriate advisors?) To be clear, it is expected and desired that the committee would have suggestions and criticisms of the science assessment and would want to see a revised draft. (This, after all, is the hallmark of peer-review). However, the tone and extent of the criticism in this letter takes it up a notch.

By contrast, a group of 17 scientists from the disbanded panel, while detailing a number of revisions needed for improving the science assessment, stated, “We commend EPA staff for development of an excellent first draft of the ISA that provides comprehensive and systematic assessment of the available science relevant to understanding the health impacts of exposure to particulate matter.”

Given the committee’s own admission that the group is in inadequate to conduct the review, this does raise questions about whether the group is qualified to offer some of the detailed technical criticisms it does, such as on the adequacy of non-threshold models to estimate health associations at low concentrations and the need for study exclusion criteria.

What’s next on PM and ozone reviews?

The EPA will now decide what to do with this science advice. Will it revise the science assessment and send it back to CASAC or simply declare it does not need a second review? Will the PM panel be reconvened to review a second draft science assessment? What about the timeline for the PM standard update? We know the administration is working on an expedited schedule. Administrator Wheeler has made this clear.

And what about the ozone process? If CASAC has concluded it has inadequate expertise for the PM review, it is difficult to imagine they will feel qualified to conduct the upcoming ozone review, given it relies on a similar breadth of scientific disciplines. (The EPA is set to release the ozone science assessment this spring). EPA leadership failed to convene an ozone review panel last October so CASAC is again poised to review a massive scientific assessment with one hand tied behind its back. The agency could decide to plow forward in the PM standard update process, ignoring CASAC’s advice.

Regardless of what the agency does next, it is clear the process is broken, and its science advisors know it too.

Photo: USDA/Flickr

Three Things EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler Doesn’t Understand About Ambient Air Pollution Standards

Photo: Eltiempo10/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler talked to Congress. Members had questions about his recent changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards updates for particulate matter and ozone. Wheeler’s comments last week and earlier make clear that he either doesn’t understand or isn’t being honest about how the EPA is proceeding as it sets health-protective air pollution standards. Here’s the reality around three points that Administrator Wheeler isn’t clear on.

1. CASAC doesn’t have the expertise it needs

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) concluded at its most recent meeting that it does NOT have the expertise needed to adequately provide science advice to the EPA on development of the particulate matter standard. The committee’s conclusion directly conflicts with Administrator Wheeler’s comments on the hill this week after the CASAC meeting. Rather than listen to CASAC’s conclusion that it does not have the expertise, Wheeler doubled down on his earlier comments to Congress in insisting the committee has “a very good balance of talents.” It seems someone should give Wheeler the notes from EPA’s own committee’s meeting. Instead of denying this need for additional expertise, Wheeler could and should reconvene the particulate matter review panel that he disbanded last October.

The administrator also appeared confused about what expertise does exist on CASAC. When asked about epidemiologic expertise on the committee, he said, “I believe one person had to resign who I believe was an epidemiologist who we — we weren’t able or we — we haven’t yet replaced that person, if I’m remembering the right board. It was either the Science Advisory Board or the CASAC.” Since the administration appointed new CASAC members last October, there has not been an epidemiologist on the committee—a huge gap given how central epidemiologic evidence is to assessing the health outcomes of ambient air pollutant exposure. Given this shortcoming, on top of the lack of pollutant review panels, it is no wonder that CASAC itself recognizes its need for more expertise on its teleconference two weeks ago.

2. Pollutant review panels don’t slow down the process

In his comments to Congress, Wheeler said that the particulate matter review panel was disbanded because pollutant review panels were slowing down the process of reviewing ambient air pollution standard. “We took a hard look at what was causing the delay because the agency had never met the five-year timeframe for ozone or PM,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee. This is objectively false and runs counter to Wheeler’s previous statements where he insisted that the panels were unnecessary. The process of ensuring a robust scientific review of air pollution standards is of course not the fastest process in the world. Just as the peer-review process tends to be slow, so too is review of thousands of pages characterizing the state of the science on a pollutant and its health and welfare effects by a group of the top experts in the field. But the pollutant review panels simply augment the expertise of CASAC. The panel’s review of the documents happens in the very same meetings that CASAC already has, and must have, according to Federal Advisory Committee Act rules. Sure, the additional experts in the room from inclusion of the panel might mean longer discussions, or an extra conference call, but this is far from a huge slow down on the process. Instead, a bigger reason that ambient air quality standard updates aren’t speedy is because of the limited capacity on the EPA side. If the agency were given more resources to conduct and prioritize reviews, this could speed up the process—if this were, in fact, the goal of this Administration.

Wheeler claims to be concerned about whether or not the review happens within the Clean Air Act mandated five-year window. It is true that reviews are often not completed within five years, but the courts have generally recognized the need for thorough scientific reviews in standard updates. Instead, the administration is insisting that both the particulate matter and ozone reviews happen by the end of 2020.

3. Science advisors should be chosen based on diversity of expertise not geography

In his testimony, Wheeler asserted that “CASAC members and the members of the Science Advisory Board were selected in large part for geographic diversity, geographic diversity of — of — of viewpoints and backgrounds.” This one should be intuitive. If you took a chemistry class in Cleveland, you probably learned the same thing as a chemistry student in Miami. There is, of course, no reason geography should matter when it comes to understanding of science. Universities, academic journals, and scientific conferences don’t curate activities through a geography lens, and neither should the EPA. Instead what the EPA should do, and always has done, is select members of scientific advisory committees for diversity of expertise. To get the best science advice, the agency should make sure the committee includes experts in diverse areas. For CASAC, that means including experts in atmospheric science, medicine, toxicology, epidemiology, etc. Yet, the current CASAC excludes key areas of expertise like epidemiology.

Wheeler blames the selection of CASAC members on EPA staff saying he, in fact, did not pick the members, EPA staff did. He told Congress last week, “I didn’t hand-select any of the people on the CASAC. They were recommended to me … by the career staff and … and the Science Advisory Board Office.” This is curious given that it is the EPA administrator who decides committee membership. EPA staff always make recommendations to the administrator for who would be good candidates for a committee, given balance of expertise, but there has never been a committee like this, with so little membership from active researchers in the field and instead heavily weighted toward regulators. It is hard to imagine that EPA staff would select such a committee without input from political level staff.

Sacrificing both quality and speed

Wheeler’s need for speed has not yielded results. Thus far, the PM review has not been faster than recent reviews that included the review panel. Currently, CASAC is finalizing its letter to the EPA recommending how the agency should revise its science assessment on particulate matter. This letter will confirm that the committee agrees it doesn’t have the needed expertise and make specific recommendations to EPA staff on the document. The EPA can then move forward without the expert advice its science advisors say it needs, or it can delay the process and reconvene the robust particulate matter review panel necessary for a science-informed process.

As of now, Administrator Wheeler is getting neither speed nor quality out of its particulate matter review. It is looking more and more like he won’t get what he wants out of the particulate matter standard update. But if the EPA fails to set a PM standard based on science, the public won’t either.

Photo: Eltiempo10/Wikimedia Commons

Fires in Texas Spark Interest in Chemical Safety


Watching the news last week as clouds of thick black smoke billowed over Houston, I worried about my family. They are surrounded by chemical plants. Hearing state and local officials saying there is no air quality issue, and then ordering everyone to “shelter in place” terrified me. In truth, the monitors either weren’t working or were under maintenance, and there didn’t seem to be an evacuation plan. Why not? The law requires one.

In the past month, there have been at least two major chemical fires or explosions at EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) facilities. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been extensively writing on the RMP rule and its provisions and participated in the victorious court case that required the EPA to implement the Obama era rule.

RMP standards are aimed to provide additional information to communities surrounding facilities, require facilities to coordinate with first responders on emergency evacuation plans in case of an emergency, and to research safer technology alternatives that may make their facility less prone to catastrophic incidents.

Despite these important provisions, the Trump Administration has moved forward with rolling back this rule and in doing so, they have proposed to “remove all preventative measures.”  What is a risk management plan if it doesn’t lower risks? The final rule is being finalized now, and we expect with the concerns we had over the proposed rule that this final rule will weaken standards. The two major chemical fires and explosions this month should demonstrate to the EPA that implementing the RMP protections are the least they could do for environmental justice communities, first responders, and workers to protect their public health and safety.

The KMCO plant explosion in Crosby, Texas occurred on April 2nd at the chemical manufacturing facility when isobutylene ignited. This facility was no stranger to incidents, its past explosion occurred in 2010 causing worker injuries and a worker death. The facility has been cited for lacking an appropriate emergency action plan, benzene leaks, and lack of monitoring. This time around, the explosion killed one and injured two others. Communities surrounding this facility are still seeking information from TCEQ and the facility directly on potential health hazards and air quality monitoring in the wake of the explosion.

The Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) fire in Deer Park, Texas on March 17th burned for days and once the fires from the various containers were put out, a new shelter in place order for two additional days was issued due to excessive benzene levels detected. Congressional members representing sections of the Houston area came together to call on TCEQ to provide more information on the air monitoring and information sharing after this fire.

Unfortunately, explosions like these add insult to injury for many communities. People living near petrochemical facilities like these already face disproportionate exposure to toxic emissions from the facilities on a regular basis, in addition to other nearby sources of air pollution, like increased truck traffic around the facility and other industrial and transportation-related pollution and stressors. Preventable chemical disasters only add to the burden faced by these communities on a daily basis.

Yvette Arellano from the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), an environmental justice group working on the ground in Manchester and Greater Houston Area, stated “While regulatory agencies protect these facilities from acts of terrorism, who protects us from these facilities which terrorize us on a daily basis? The simple daily acts of life from brushing our teeth in the morning to going to sleep are made traumatic by these events, and the ITC disaster is yet to be over. We never asked to live a life in which we are scared of being at home, forced to live with plastic on the windows and doors, with no ventilation in a city where temperatures regularly skyrocket to over 100. We are suffering out of sight, made silent, and forced into the shadows-living under dark clouds, not of our making. This is not just, it is not freedom or liberty this is an act of terror on our lives.”

I wish I could be clinical and detached from this issue, but I can’t. My family lives in one of the largest concentrations of these RMP facilities outside of Houston, Texas. Every time I hear about another incident I think of my nieces and nephew and whether they were outside at school when this happened. I worried about them while they were locked in their homes in a shelter in place during the ITC fire and subsequent benzene leak. Like all young children, they deserve to be free to run outside without fear of a chemical cloud keeping them indoors.

These incidents at chemical facilities in Texas are unfortunately perfect examples of why the Risk Management Plan standards should not only be maintained by the Trump Administration but should also be strengthened during this rulemaking process. Congress should hold the EPA accountable and call on them to issue a strengthened RMP rule that provides the communities outside of these facilities better access to information regarding the chemicals on-site, better coordination with first responders to create better safety plans that aren’t limited to shelter in place.

Chemical facilities need oversight and high standards for safety in order to protect environmental justice communities, first responders, and workers. Companies should be held accountable, particularly those with multiple incidents and fines like the two facilities above. They need to be willing to more readily share information with communities so families like mine can make the best decision in case of a fire or explosion and need to take strong measures to reduce the risk of these incidents happening in the future.


 Xenophobia Run Amok at the National Institutes of Health

Photo: GaryAlvis/iStock

If you’re a scientist, a researcher, a physician, a graduate student, or even a patient visiting our National Institutes of Health (NIH), be sure to bring proof of citizenship with you and be ready to answer questions about your nationality. Otherwise you may be turned away. Even if you’re an international member of our prestigious National Academy of Medicine, or maybe a patient enrolled in a clinical trial.

While a Homeland Security Presidential Directive has been in place since 2004 (in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks), the Washington Post reports that something has changed at our nation’s medical research agency. In their words, “NIH—a research institution built on collaboration—is apparently following the same protocol used by federal security agencies that deal with highly sensitive or classified information and require top secret security clearance for their employees.”

This practice has unnerved researchers both inside and outside the agency. And with good reason.

Xenophobia run amok

Science at the NIH and elsewhere is a global effort. It’s a collaborative enterprise that thrives on diversity and has nothing to do with citizenship. But the NIH now finds itself caught (and caught up) in the anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump administration. As we’ve noted earlier, this is not good for science, scientists, and scientific progress.

What’s happening at NIH is not good for patients and their visitors to the campus. It is not good for ensuring a future pool of talented NIH researchers. And it is certainly not good for public health and for people who rely on the world-class science and research at NIH—be they providers or recipients of health care. It’s just another misguided effort that drags immigration policies into science. (Readers may also recall that earlier in the year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to end research grants to scientists who are not US citizens and permanent residents, nor support work in government labs if done by foreign nationals.)

Good science does not depend on passports, nationality, or citizenship

Who knows where the next scientific breakthrough, innovation, or great idea will come from? Maybe from some foreign-born researcher toiling over a dataset or experimental results in one of our national labs. Maybe from the Iranian graduate student who was turned away from NIH when he arrived for a job interview—with an invited presentation.

What are the consequences if the US no longer welcomes scientists from other nations to our laboratories—or subjects them to undue scrutiny and interrogation? We all lose. Good science does not depend on passports, nationality, or citizenship.

Speak out

What’s happening at NIH is wrong—and should set off alarm bells in the scientific, medical, and public health communities. The health and well-being of our nation will suffer when we close our eyes and doors to working with colleagues from other nations.

Collaboration and openness are fundamental to scientific progress; the xenophobic policies of this administration run counter to our ambitions and our values. Let’s replace signs at our national institutes and laboratories that ask for proof of citizenship with signs that say “We welcome you, and your talent and ideas. We do science here, not politics.”

Let’s raise our collective voices to make this happen.

Photo: GaryAlvis/iStock

Trump Administration Proposes Sponsorship Opportunities for Federal Agency Staff Positions and “Assets”

Sports fans have long been familiar with their favorite stadiums being sponsored by companies. Under a new Trump administration proposal, positions within federal agencies—and, incredibly, “assets” such as federal lands—would be open to sponsorship by the highest bidder. We’d strongly encourage you to submit public comments on this ridiculous proposal here.

Under the plan, companies could sponsor and pay for the salaries of political appointees at a 500% premium. So with an adequate donation, the 3M Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, or the American Petroleum Institute Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, may become a reality as early as September 2019.

The sweeping proposal would also allow for the renaming of specific government “assets”, including national parks. And naming rights would not just be for companies and trade groups, as proposals from individuals would also be considered. Imagine if Yellowstone becames RogerStone, Joshua Tree becomes Josh Groban Tree, Bryce Canyon becomes Bryce Harper Canyon! At this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Arches National Park would eventually become the Golden Arches National Park.

Under this foolish proposal, federal “assets” such as Joshua Tree National Park could be renamed after companies, trade groups, or individuals. Photo: National Park Service.

Some industry trade groups, of course, lauded the move with generic, meaningless press statements. “These are exactly the types of public-private partnerships that will grow the economy and enable companies to take care of business,” said Cory Upshin, press secretary for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Agencies would also have the option to set up auction sites to name specific positions. Some expect that it might work similar to an Amazon headquarters-style competition, where companies and trade groups submit applications to fund some of the more competitive positions. Such activity is not unheard of under the Trump administration: the USDA currently has numerous communities and even a private citizen in Pennsylvania positioning themselves to be the new home of two agencies that Secretary Sonny Purdue wants to move out of Washington.

Naming rights for positions at both private and public universities are not uncommon. Many buildings and faculty positions are named after wealthy donors, and sometimes those donors try to inappropriately influence both research and classroom instruction.

Each sponsorship would need to be approved by a new advisory committee called the Commission on Labeling, Ownership, and Weighted Name Sponsorship. Some science advisory panel members who were recently canned from giving the EPA advice on particulate matter pollution would reportedly consider applying. “While this isn’t quite my definition of public service, at least I might be able to prevent the most offensive names from moving forward,” said Dr. Brandy N. Ames, one of the affected scientists.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced immediately that the agency would begin implementing the proposal before it is finalized, much as it has with other proposed rules over the past two and a half years.

In other news, polluting industries can kill as many birds as they want as long as they don’t do it on purpose, Trump advisors believe that more air pollution is good for you and particulate matter pollution doesn’t cause health problems, the Census Bureau wants to ask a question it hasn’t tested, the National Park Service wants you to shoot hibernating bear cubs in their dens, a former coal lobbyist is in charge at EPA, and the head guy at the Department of Interior used to lobby for the oil and gas industry and worked to dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

Again, you can submit public comments here. It all seems like some kind of joke, doesn’t it?

Five Takeaways from the EPA Meeting on Particulate Pollution

Photo: Steven Buss/Flickr

Yesterday, the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) had a teleconference to discuss their recommendations to the administration on the agency’s assessment of the science on particulate matter (PM) and health. The meeting continued the ongoing push and pull between the EPA, its science advisors, and the committee chair Dr. Tony Cox.

The committee was meeting to finalize a letter they will jointly send to the EPA recommending changes to its draft science assessment on the state of particulates and health, a key document that informs the EPA’s (statutorily required to be science-based) decision on the level of particulate matter that protects public health. (More background and information on the state of play in my Scientific American piece here.) Here’s five top takeaways from the meeting:

1. CASAC admits it doesn’t have the needed expertise

The committee finally agreed on what was obvious to everyone else: They need more expertise. Since EPA leaders dismissed the particulate matter review panel last October and selected a new set of CASAC members that don’t include key expertise like epidemiology, it has been abundantly clear that the current seven-member CASAC is insufficient to review the hefty and wide-ranging scope of the EPA’s science assessment. I, and many other scientists, made this point in public comments at the December meeting. And a letter signed by 206 air quality in public health experts asked the administration to reinstate the panel. Members of CASAC themselves echoed these concerns but in December the chair pressed forward, ignoring them. This time, he conceded they needed more expertise and the group agreed to put language in their final letter that asks for a reconvening of the particulate matter review panel or one with comparable expertise, plus a few additional expertise areas they indicate needing.

This new consensus is important. The committee now has disagreed with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler who told Congress earlier this year that the panel had the needed expertise to conduct the review. In response to a question from Senator Carper asking about the dismissal of the PM panel, Administrator Wheeler said, “I believe the current CASAC has the experience and expertise needed to serve in this capacity as well as to complete the reviews for the particulate matter and ozone NAAQS.” The committee now admits they do not, raising questions about whether the EPA will be able to obtain the best available science advice necessary to set a science-based PM standard that protects public health, as the Clean Air Act requires.

2. CASAC members pushed back on the chair

While at the December meeting the Chair was able to override most disagreements raised by others, in this meeting CASAC members were more willing to speak up and disagree with the Chair on letter contents. As a result, many of the most damaging elements of the draft letter that the Chair released on March 7th were removed. The draft letter had uncharacteristically strong critiques for how the EPA conducted its science assessment calling the robustly lengthy and exhaustively referenced document “unverifiable opinion” and accusing the EPA of not following the scientific method. The committee has thankfully agreed to strike this language. It is less clear if committee members were able to push back on all of the problematic language in the letter, but the final draft should be substantially less hostile to EPA’s science assessment than the version Cox drafted.

3. The scientific community stood up

The broader scientific community is not sitting this one out. Last week I released a paper in Science with Harvard data scientist and air pollution and health effects expert Francesca Dominici. The paper took on Cox directly for his fringe ideas about how the EPA should approach assessing links between air pollution and health outcomes like early death and respiratory disease. Many other top experts in the field gave in-person comments or submitted written comments criticizing the process and scientific approach being taken by CASAC chair. There were also organizational comments from the Health Effects Institute and the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, as well as a letter signed by 17 members of the dismissed PM review panel. These critical comments build on public comments submitted and delivered at CASAC’s December meeting, including comments from former CASAC members and former PM review panel members, and former ozone review panel members. In short, the top experts in air pollution and health are in strong unified opposition to the approach being taken by Dr. Cox and this meeting made that abundantly clear.

4. The chair has not moderated his fringe views

Dr. Cox was criticized in my Science piece and elsewhere for his views far outside the mainstream scientific community on air pollution and health. While Dr. Cox expressed surprise with this characterization, mentioning my Science piece explicitly, he did not moderate his views throughout the meeting, noting that he is “appalled” with the lack of evidence for the connection between particulate matter and early death, a relationship that scientists have studied and confirmed in many studies, over many years, in many locations around the world, using different study designs.

5. The process is broken

The (well-designed, in my opinion) process for developing air pollution standards is now broken for this PM standard update. This started long before the current CASAC was appointed. Last spring in his “Back to Basics” memo, former EPA Administrator Pruitt made clear he intended to expedite the process for updating the particulate matter and ozone standards and create conditions that made it harder for robust science advice to inform National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Pruitt and now Administrator Wheeler made good on that promise by tearing down the scientific supports that ensure a robust scientific process with ample opportunities for public input.

EPA is now in a tough spot. It would be difficult in any event to complete a PM review by 2020 as the administration intends. Doing so was made more difficult by the administration nixing the PM review panel. It is now made even more difficult by CASAC’s intention to ask for the panel to be reinstated, a move that would surely mean more public meetings, document drafts, and a general delay in the process.

Alternatively, the administration could move forward, ignoring CASAC’s request for more expertise but in doing so, they are almost certainly setting themselves up for legal challenges. If CASAC itself acknowledges they don’t have the scientific expertise to conduct a science-based review, how can the administration claim to have set a science-based standard? Based on yesterday’s discussion, there are likely to be some elements of the final letter that still conflict with the broader scientific community’s opinion on EPA’s approach, despite pushback from several committee members and nearly all public comments. We will see what the final letter to the administration from CASAC looks like, but one thing is for certain, this process is broken.


My written comments from the meeting are here and below are my oral comments and clarifying comments made at the meeting yesterday.


Oral Comments Delivered at the March 28, 2019 CASAC Teleconference:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I am the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. On behalf of more than half a million citizens and scientists, we advocate for the use of science for a healthy planet and a safer world. The Center for Science and Democracy works to advance the roles of science and public participation in policy decision-making. We have never advocated for an ambient air quality standard different from the CASAC recommendation, only to ensure the proper process is followed and scientific advice is heeded.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set particulate matter (PM) standards at levels that protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety. CASAC is charged with considering all available evidence and providing science advice on the standards. At this stage in the PM standard update, there are significant challenges to both the science and process that CASAC is following. 

Scientific Issues

The ISA deserves to be scrutinized and improved by experts on all facets of the assessment. And CASAC’s review of the ISA should be helping EPA to identify new research questions and to refine its characterization of the state of the science. However, this has not been the case.

It is crucial that CASAC rely on the wealth of knowledge in the published literature, as reflected in the ISA draft. CASAC should rely on the established approach for assessing the causal links between particulate pollution and health impacts, as detailed in the preamble to the ISAs.  The causal framework employed by the EPA has evolved over the past decade, has been endorsed by 11 prior CASACs and 138 experts, and has been deemed adequate in the courts.

Yet, the March 7 draft letter by the CASAC chair proposes upending this scientifically backed and time-tested approach. The chair’s proposal would create an unattainable burden of proof on the scientific community to demonstrated causal links between PM reductions and changes in health outcomes, as it is not feasible or ethical to design and carry out population-level manipulative causation studies. 

Importantly, following the chair’s proposal is incompatible with CASAC’s charge to recommend PM standards that protect public health with an adequate margin of safety including sensitive subpopulations. Protecting groups such as the elderly, children, and those with lung diseases, with an adequate margin of safety requires the EPA to consider all evidence and use expert judgement. Relying on a framework that discounts epidemiologic evidence and requires manipulative causation for all causal determinations made by the agency is unlikely to meet this Clean Air Act mandate.

Process Issues

A flawed process produces a flawed result. Thus far, CASAC has not followed a process that is likely to lead to a science-based recommendation to the EPA Administrator. Significant gaps in expertise remain, given EPA leadership’s choice of CASAC members and the dismissal of the PM review panel.

Despite persistent calls for additional expertise by CASAC members, echoed by public comments, the CASAC chair has continued to press forward without addressing these concerns. As a result, the PM NAAQS review is proceeding without the science advice needed to ensure a health-protective standard.

This lack of expertise has been abundantly clear in CASAC meeting discussion and written comments from CASAC members. Rather than discussing key areas of uncertainty and the implications of new important research on particulate matter and health, as would be most helpful for the EPA to hear in deliberations from its top science advisors, CASAC instead has spent its valuable time within an expedited review process questioning and renegotiating well-established concepts, such as the value of the field of epidemiology, the importance of studying effects on at risk populations, and the connection between particulate exposure and premature death.

The proposed changes to EPA’s causal framework, expedited time frame, planned merging of documents, combined with gaps in expertise and limited public input opportunities—together—are likely to undermine the ability of the EPA to set a science-based standard for particulate matter, protective of public health.

Following the chair’s proposal and agreeing to these other changes prevents the EPA from relying on the best available science. I urge the members of CASAC and the EPA to listen to the recommendations of top experts in the scientific community and reject this proposal.


Clarifying comments made in response to CASAC Discussion:

On the discussion of two views of science, it seems there is conflation of individual studies and a review of existing studies. CASAC’s charge with respect to the ISA is to look at the body of evidence and the strength of the evidence. It is not CASAC’s job to decide how the broader scientific community should approach individual study designs. There is a time and place for that. It is not in the midst of an established EPA regulatory process. I’d like the committee to ask EPA staff for their perspective on this point and how EPA does approach a systematic review of the literature.

With respect to the discussion of the alternative framework proposed by the chair, I’d like to clarify that in the Science piece, we referenced and reacted to the Chair’s own words as presented in the draft letter under discussion as well as in the December meeting. The proposal would indeed reject most of the key studies EPA relies on for a causal assessment on long-term exposure to PM and mortality, a link that the chair has stated he is questioning. This is what Francesca Dominici and I, along with several other commenters are expressing concern about.

I would very much welcome the featuring of accountability studies and discussing them to the extent that they are informative to the ISA. I agree it is useful to have testable rules. But we cannot overrely on them in a context where we are using observational data to study an environmental risk. Instead of allowing these ideas to be introduced, debated, peer reviewed, and advanced in the scientific literature, the proposal suggests that this process be largely skipped and force fit into the EPA process when as we’ve heard several times today, this is not ready for prime time.

Lastly, the address the true versus estimated exposure conversation, true exposure is not knowable. Much work in the scientific literature, including my own, have characterized this issue in depth. The premise of what we are looking at is what is knowable. The Chair is calling this estimated but it is in fact the relevant value because the measure that is germane to improving an ambient standard is the “regulatory ambient” i.e. the relationship between ambient concentrations and health outcomes. There is no reason to complicate this with an explanation of the obvious fact that studies are using estimates.

Given the substantive changes to the letter being discussed, it seems another public call is warranted to ensure CASAC members have time to review and approve of the revised letter, also keeping in mind FACA rules on transparency of committee deliberations.

Photo: Steven Buss/Flickr

Equality, More or Less: How the Supreme Court Might Fix Gerrymandering

This week the Supreme Court prepared to make voting rights history ahead of the 2020 Census redistricting cycle. Justices heard oral arguments in two partisan gerrymandering cases: a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina (Rucho v Common Cause) and a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland (Lamone v Benesik). Plaintiffs in these cases are seeking relief and a standard to rein in state legislative attempts to maximize partisan advantage through the manipulation of district boundaries.

Oral arguments laid out in unusually clear fashion why these difficult questions have left the Justices grappling for answers. Taken together, the arguments create a frottage that reveals fundamental limitations on the fit between constitutional protections and our electoral institutions.

Why the obsession with proportional representation?

During both cases a lot of time was spent discussing whether the standard for a fair partisan map is proportional representation, or a close correspondence between the share of votes a party earns statewide and the share of legislative seats it wins. At one point in an exchange with Mr. Kimberly (representing Maryland plaintiffs) over the fairness of a 5/3 Democratic/Republican split, Justice Kavanaugh claimed “that shows…the overwhelming driver is proportional representation…Do you think the Constitution requires proportional representation or something close to proportional representation?”

After Mr. Kimberly responded that he did not see a textual indication in the Constitution, Justice Kavanaugh gets more specific:

Kavanaugh: “Equal Protection Clause does not suggest to you something where political groups are treated roughly equally?”

Kimberly: “Your Honor, if that’s the way that you’re inclined to think about it, I’m certainly…

Kavanaugh: “No I’m just asking why…”

Kimberly: “Happy to have you rule that way.” (Court breaks out in laughter.)

Kavanaugh: “…challenging the maps but running away from proportional representation, even though…there’s a suggestion that really it all comes back to proportional representation in some respects.”

There is one respect under which equal protection, or political equality, does require proportional representation. Not as a matter of what the Constitution says, but as a matter of fact. That is, the only electoral system that gives exact equal value to every voters’ party preference is pure proportional representation, where those preferences are reflected perfectly in the percentage of seats that each party wins.

So on the one hand, it is a fact that equal treatment under the law is truly maximized only under proportional electoral systems, where every vote contributes to seat shares. On the other hand, Congressional elections are currently prohibited by law from using proportional electoral systems, and as Justice Kavanaugh later reminds Mr. Kimberly: “Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy have made very clear in various opinions that the Constitution contains no such guarantee.” As currently interpreted, whatever the Constitution requires falls short of proportional representation.

A standard fit for a district?

The lower equality standard reflected in current Constitutional interpretations is well understood among both election law experts and political scientists. Justice Breyer has noted the tension between single-seat districts and proportional representation. The most prominent metric of partisan advantage in political science, Gelman and King’s partisan asymmetry statistic, is a measure of vote dilution that accounts for  disproportionalities inherent in our single-seat, winner-take-all elections. Asymmetry measures the difference in seat shares that each party’s voters receive in a plan for the same statewide vote share, say 50%. A second component of the Gelman and King model, responsiveness, captures that inherent disproportionality that emerges when voters shift support from one party to another, typically resulting in a “winner’s bonus.” A system that is less responsive to shifts in support is evidence of a more durable gerrymander.

As responsiveness decreases (the slope flattens), a party’s share of seats can withstand more loss of voter support. Lack of responsiveness is evidence of a durable partisan gerrymander.

And it is within this asymmetry framework that we find a test that parallels the three-prong approach established for deciding racial gerrymandering cases in Thornburg v Gingles. It is described in the Amicus Brief submitted in the North Carolina case (in favor of neither party) by professors Bernard Grofman and Keith Gaddie. Their proposed test requires that plaintiffs first demonstrate that the opposition party has been deprived of partisan advantage in at least one district in the enacted plan in the same manner as Gingles: targeted voters must be a large and compact enough group to create a majority district without diluting their advantage in other districts. Second, the opposition voters must exhibit polarized partisan voting. Voters who regularly shift support between parties would not provide an advantage to either.

Third, plaintiffs must demonstrate vote dilution at the district level, through either a district where the opposition party regularly loses, or in a majority district where voters could be allocated more efficiently across districts. Finally, because changing parties is an option whereas changing race is not, the responsiveness statistic can be used to demonstrate the durability of a partisan gerrymander.

Justice Kagan’s expressed concern that the Maryland plan “flips the composition of the district from 47 percent Republicans and 36 percent Democrats to, instead, 45 percent Democrats and 34 percent Republicans, effectively ensuring that Republicans will never win this seat again…” and is excessive can be answered by including durability in the test.

Using responsiveness as a means of estimating durability is especially appealing as it is distinct from proportional outcome expectations. In fact, this final element of the test could require that very disproportional plans be upheld. Consider an extreme hypothetical where the difference in party affiliation in Maryland’s eight districts is only one person in each district. That is, each district is nearly perfectly split 50/50. In such a case, one person changing their vote changes control of the district, and if each pivotal voter in the district votes Democratic, Democrats win all eight seats, which is the least proportional plan. However, responsiveness is also maximized if it only takes eight people to flip every district, demonstrating that the plan is not a durable gerrymander.

Finding asymmetry demonstrates that one party’s voters are experiencing vote dilution at the state level. This partisan gerrymandering test goes further to identify where the dilution is occurring, how durable it is, and how a remedy would change an existing map. The constitutional logic is parallel to what has been long established and upheld in racial vote dilution cases.

Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that the extent of gerrymandering has changed. Justice Kavanaugh acknowledged that partisan gerrymandering is a problem for democracy. Could a majority of justices recognize that this court’s legitimacy depends, at least in part, on its ability to prevent partisan interests from dictating electoral outcomes at the expense of voters? They have a remedy. It won’t solve the problem of political inequality in all elections, but it is probably the best we can do with what we have. If what we have is worth saving, it is imperative that the Court act.

Public domain

How the Chemical Industry Deployed the Disinformation Playbook on PFAS

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will convene tomorrow for a hearing on the federal responses (or lack thereof) to the risks associated with the class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, inviting representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Defense, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to testify. It has been encouraging to see Congress conducting oversight on the government’s failures to protect us from PFAS. While the federal government is responsible for its regulatory inaction once it learned of PFAS’ dangers, the companies who created, manufactured, and processed these chemicals and then dumped them unrestricted into our environment—fully understanding their persistence and even toxicity—should be required to answer and pay for their behavior.

Today, we added a case study to our Disinformation Playbook that explores how DuPont and 3M chose to bury unfavorable research linking PFAS to health issues, a decision that staved off regulatory scrutiny and allowed the companies to continue to profit while workers in their facilities, and the rest of us downstream, faced the consequences. This is only one of the strategies from the disinformation playbook that the makers of PFAS, and the chemical industry trade associations that they are part of, have employed to undermine public health.

The Fake

In our new case study, we illustrate how DuPont and 3M used “The Fake” by concealing health studies linking exposure to increased rate of tumors, liver damage, and birth defects:

In the 1960s, for example, DuPont researchers found PFOA could increase liver size in animals. According to the New York Times, other documents revealed that by the 1990s, the company knew that PFOA caused multiple types of cancerous tumors. The company did not share its knowledge with the public, regulators, or even largely its own workers, who faced elevated levels of cancers and the possibility of giving birth to children with birth defects, among other health effects.

DuPont was not the only company to engage in such corporate disinformation. In early 2018, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released documents showing that the chemical company 3M had also concealed and downplayed the dangers of PFAS for decades. 3M, which invented PFOA and used another variety of PFAS called PFOS in its popular product Scotchgard, had conducted scientific studies in the 1970s that showed the toxicity of the chemicals, but did not turn over any of its science to the Environmental Protection Agency for more than 20 years.

The Diversion

PFAS makers and users have also used “The Diversion,” a strategy to manufacture uncertainty about the science and deceive the public. As the body of evidence linking PFAS exposure to assorted health effects has grown, 3M, DuPont, and the chemical industry trade associations that they are affiliated with have continued to use disinformation to fight off regulations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issued a toxicological profile on PFOA, PFOS and a handful of other PFAS variants and determined that the risk levels for PFAS were 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA’s current health advisory. In 2018, 3M helped form the Responsible Science Policy Coalition, an advocacy group that has cast doubt on the findings of the ATSDR report and other science showing the health effects of PFAS. This organization joins the ranks of scores of other front groups with innocuous-sounding names that promote disinformation and fight tooth and nail against regulation that would protect public health. My colleague, Michael Halpern, described some of their methods in a blog post last year:

In July, the Responsible Science Policy Coalition surfaced at a meeting of the Council of Western Attorneys General where they expressed being “eager to help your state with your issues.” In their presentation to the attorneys general, the RSPC argued that there are “lots of problems with existing PFAS studies” and that these studies “don’t show the strength of association needed to support causation.”

The RSPC also submitted a comment on the ATSDR draft toxicology assessment that extensively detailed why, in their view, ATSDR’s scientific approach was sub-par.

The Fix

The infiltration of state and federal governments by individuals pushing the chemical industry’s agenda has hamstrung further regulation of PFAS to protect public health, in a textbook use of “The Fix.” In West Virginia, several employees at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ended up working for firms hired by DuPont. At the national level, starting in 2003, DuPont’s PFOA strategy for the EPA was led by former EPA deputy administrator Michael McCabe, and his successor at EPA also joined DuPont’s efforts after leaving the agency in 2003. DuPont had access to inside information at the agency and drafted quotes for EPA officials, a practice McCabe later said was “customary.”

In 2006, a draft report by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board found PFOA to be a likely human carcinogen. In response to the report, an internal DuPont email noted that “In our opinion, the only voice that can cut through the negative stories, is the voice of EPA. We need EPA…to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: Consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe.” A few weeks later, EPA issued such a statement. McCabe denied that EPA made the statement in exchange for DuPont’s phase-out of PFOA, while EPA has declined to comment.

Last year, the revolving door between industry and EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention impacted the release of the aforementioned ATSDR report. In May 2018, documents we obtained revealed that the White House and EPA blocked a draft government study on PFAS after a Trump administration official warned the study’s release would lead to a “public relations nightmare.” The Trump administration has close ties with the chemical industry, and EPA employee Nancy Beck—one of the employees involved in the effort to bury the study—worked at the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association, before joining Trump’s EPA. The documents were released the week before an EPA conference on PFAS in which community members and journalists—but not industry employees—were shut out from attending. In mid-June, after significant bipartisan Congressional pressure, ATSDR finally released its report.

As the disinformation drags on, local action is powerful

As the same players use the same tired old plays to divert attention away from dangerous chemicals and real solutions, the agencies that have promised to keep us safe from PFAS by figuring out how to regulate them and clean them up have been failing to do so. Just last month, EPA released its long-awaited PFAS “action” plan that was seriously lacking in any real action. In lieu of meaningful federal action, states like Vermont, New Jersey, and Minnesota have set enforceable drinking water standards stricter than EPA’s health advisory. Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer yesterday directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin the process of establishing standards for PFAS in the state. States have taken the lead not only in setting enforceable drinking water and groundwater standards, and passing legislation that further regulates these chemicals, but also in holding companies accountable for poisoning our waterways and bloodstreams.

Take my home state of New Jersey, in which the governor just this week ordered 3M, DuPont, DowDuPont, Chemours, and Solvay to assess and eventually clean up the very expensive PFAS-related pollution in the state. This comes after class action lawsuits have compelled DuPont and 3M to pay West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan residents for PFAS-related pollution. And as states work to hold companies accountable, grassroots organizations and community members are standing up to fight corporate power across the country.

As Congress continues to consider legislation related to this class of chemicals, it is essential that there are provisions holding companies responsible for polluting, and for spreading disinformation in order to keep on polluting. Companies should be held liable for all of the damage they have done in lives lost and harmed and natural resources destroyed. You can help by contacting your members of congress to urge them to join the recently created PFAS task force (and scientists- you can use your expertise to encourage Congressional oversight here).

EPA Needs to Trust Its Own Scientists and Protect Us from Ethylene Oxide

Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr

Later this afternoon I will be providing comment to the EPA at a public hearing related to its proposed rule on facilities producing hydrochloric acid (HCl). In addition to HCl, many of these sites emit ethylene oxide, a flammable colorless gas that EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) determined was carcinogenic to humans back in 2016. According to the proposed rule, communities near these facilities experience a lifetime cancer risk of 600-in-1-million, which is six times EPA’s unsafe level. What is the agency doing to protect people from this risk? There is no regulatory action proposed in the rulemaking—instead, the agency is asking for comment on the use of the IRIS ethylene oxide risk value for “regulatory purposes,” calling into question the work of its own scientists in the IRIS program.

The IRIS program conducted a systematic review of toxicological and epidemiological evidence that took ten years to complete and included interagency review, input from the EPA Science Advisory Board, and public comment. It concluded that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans, causing an increased risk of cancer of leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer in women. Recently released National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) data incorporating the new IRIS risk value revealed that the probability of developing cancer from air pollutants was beyond the EPA’s acceptable level of risk, and 91 percent of the risk can be attributed to ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, or chloroprene. The threat of cancer from ethylene oxide is real and present in so many communities across the country. In places like St. Charles, Louisiana right in the backyard of the largest ethylene oxide emitter in United States, exposure to ethylene oxide is just one toxin in a chemical cocktail of industrial exposures that the community faces. Areas like St. Charles rely on the EPA to use its own rigorous assessments of the science to set health-protective limits. EPA has no time to waste complying with industry requests to question its own science. It must act with urgency to use its own science to protect all of the people whose lives are at risk due to ethylene oxide exposure.

Here’s my full comment:

Good afternoon, I would like to thank the EPA for the opportunity to provide this comment today. My name is Genna Reed. I am the lead science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.

I am here today to urge the agency to cease consideration of the IRIS ethylene oxide cancer risk value in the proposed rulemaking for hydrochloric acid (HCl) production source category on the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). Ethylene oxide is included in the rulemaking because these facilities are often collocated with those that use and emit this chemical. The rule asks for comments on the use of the updated IRIS value for “regulatory purposes.” This is ill-advised. The agency should understand best the history of the EPA IRIS assessment on the carcinogenicity of ethylene oxide issued in 2016 which incorporated public comment opportunities, interagency review, and scientific peer review by EPA’s Science Advisory Board. The IRIS risk value is based on the best available science regarding health effects from this chemical. Agency policymakers evaluating regulations for the HCl production source category should not seek to disregard this established science, especially when the facilities addressed in this rulemaking are only one part of a serious problem. Questioning the use of the IRIS cancer risk value is out of the authority of the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards program, and to do it within a rulemaking on the source-focused proposal for an entirely separate chemical would set a dangerous precedent. Burying this request for comments in a rulemaking on HCl appears to be an attempt by the agency to limit community and expert input, while dismissing its own scientific experts within the agency.

The EPA IRIS program serves a critical scientific service to EPA and to the public, providing assessments that inform the decisions that protect us from hundreds of environmental contaminants. The IRIS program is housed in the National Center for Environmental Assessment within the Office of Research and Development and does important scientific work that is completely separate from the policymaking programs at EPA. Its placement is by design in order to ensure independent and objective assessments on hazardous chemicals that pose serious risks to Americans. The output of this office is not just important for federal policymaking, but IRIS assessments and associated toxicity values are used by state environmental and public health agencies, as well as community groups, to assess and address local risks to public health. This scientific expertise guides action that is essential to protect public health nationwide. It should be incorporated into and relied upon to set health-protective standards as EPA has done for years, rather than suddenly questioned in a rulemaking, for this or any other individual source of toxic air pollution.

Data on ethylene oxide released by the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) in 2018 revealed that the chemical is significantly contributing to higher cancer rates in areas surrounding chemical manufacturers and sterilizers using the chemical across the country. Just last week, the EPA issued its findings from air monitoring outside of the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook, Illinois that was shut down by the state, comparing emissions before and after the shutdown. The monitors revealed levels 90 percent lower at the sites closest to Sterigenics, revealing the direct relationship between the facility’s operations and ethylene oxide levels. The systematic review conducted by IRIS evaluated the toxicological and epidemiological evidence available on the chemical and determined that it was carcinogenic to humans, leading to an increased risk of cancer of leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer in women. The EPA should be taking swift action to issue ethylene oxide emissions standards to protect the over 100 communities across the country found to have cancer risk levels above the acceptable level of 100 in 1 million, as the Clean Air Act directs. The last thing communities exposed to ethylene oxide need is for EPA to try to ignore the science that has identified the problem.    

The chemical industry has attempted to undermine the work of the IRIS program time and time again, and there is now concern that the EPA itself is working to delay or halt IRIS assessments already underway, according to a recent GAO report. There is absolutely no good reason or time to question the agency’s own peer-reviewed science on ethylene oxide, which is robust and well-supported with substantial, independent evidence. In order for the EPA to meet its mission to protect human health and the environment, the EPA must rely on IRIS for its evaluations of the best available science and issue standards that best protect communities exposed to the highest emissions and associated health risks.

Thank you.

Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr

1,399 Endangered Species Latest Casualty as David Bernhardt’s Siege on Science Continues at Interior Department

The San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) is but one the 1,399 species whose population is at risk of being lost due to pesticide exposure. Photo: USFWS/Flickr

On Thursday, March 28, the Senate will hold a hearing to advance David Bernhardt’s nomination for Secretary of the Interior. This is not good news for the Department of the Interior, its federal scientists and their work, or the people, public lands, and endangered species that are directly affected by the agency’s decisions.

Over the past two years, Bernhardt has played a prominent role in sidelining science in policy decisions at the Department of the Interior (DOI), first as assistant Interior Secretary and then as acting secretary following Zinke’s resignation in December. We documented these attacks on science in our December report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, and continue to monitor other anti-science activities that have taken place under Bernhardt’s watch.

The Senate should do its due diligence to ensure that Bernhardt is held accountable for these attacks on science, including at Thursday’s hearing. The American people deserve better than what Bernhardt has demonstrated so far as a DOI leader: a failure to address climate change, diminishment of public lands, silenced federal scientists, and further losses of threatened and endangered species across the country.

How egregious are Bernhardt’s attacks on science? Here are three that stand out, including one that just came to light.

Bernhardt puts more than 1,200 endangered species at risk

On Wednesday, March 26, the New York Times reported that Bernhardt suppressed a scientific report on risks to endangered species. Documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request provided evidence that Bernhardt’s decision to block the release of a report documenting the threats of three pesticides to endangered species was heavily influenced by the industries who produce those pesticides.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis) sits peacefully among prairie grasses in this photo. The bird species is highly sensitive to indirect spread of pesticides such as chlorpyrifos – scientists say that the species population is in jeopardy. Photo: Brandon Trentler/Flickr

For the report, scientists at the DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) investigated the risks from three pesticides: chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon. The scientists found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they jeopardized the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species. Currently, 1,663 species are listed as threatened or endangered meaning that these two pesticides alone could be a major culprit behind the decrease in these species’ populations.

These results came to the attention of Bernhardt, who arranged several meetings with top officials at FWS. The report was never released and instead a process was put in motion changing the method by which FWS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assess chemical threats to endangered species. Specifically, scientists would no longer be able to consider the indirect—but very real—effects of pesticide exposure to endangered species (e.g., pesticide drift in air or water, contamination of food sources).

The chemical industry has long advocated that federal scientists not consider indirect impacts of pesticide exposure when determining threats to public and environmental health. However, FWS staff noted in their report that there are “Few limits on labels for when and where these pesticides can be used so exposure can be widespread,” and that “These pesticides have been found far from sites of application.”

Staff point to the kit fox as an example of an endangered species population that was nearly wiped out due to indirect impacts. This is because the fox’s food sources were contaminated by pesticides from farming practices in the San Joaquin Valley. If industry changes the process by which risk is assessed biological opinions are formed, farms will no longer be considered as an indirect source of pesticide exposure.

If indirect impacts do cause widespread harm to endangered species, it would not be accounted for and the US would be at risk of losing hundreds of endangered species.

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States. Bipartisan support of the Endangered Species Act and the listing of the bald eagle as endangered under this legislation helped increase the emblematic species population to a healthy number. Source: Ross Eliott/Flickr

Bernhardt restricts use of science at Interior Department

In one of the most egregious attacks on science that UCS has documented to date, Bernhardt signed an order in September 2018 that immediately restricted the use of science at DOI. The order, known as the “Promoting Open Science” order, requires scientific data to be made publicly accessible. However, some data cannot be made accessible to the public for legal reasons because the release of such data can endanger individuals, rare and threatened species, and culturally or religiously important sites.

The order also requires data used in policy decisions be reproducible. This in effect can exclude important contributions from older studies where raw data is inaccessible. Therefore, the number of scientific studies that can be used to inform policy decisions at the DOI will inevitably go down. Future scientific studies by DOI agencies are likely to be restricted in their scope and methodology, and the order may deter outside scientists from working with DOI agencies, out of fear that confidential information could be released.

This order means science will take a back seat in DOI policies, increase the opportunities for outside influence on agency decisions, and result in policies that are not informed by the best available science, threatening the health and safety of the public and our environment.

This beautiful vernal pool is filled with the yellow wildflower commonly known as Contra Costa Goldfields (Lasthenia conjugens). The endangered wildflower species is one that is at risk of being lost likely because pollinating insects that it depends on are being killed by toxic pesticides. Photo: Kevin Bertolero/Flickr

Bernhardt silences climate change science

On December 22, 2017, Bernhardt quietly issued Secretarial Order 3360, which rescinded multiple policies on climate change and conservation. These changes undercut the Department of Interior’s (DOI) ability to fulfill its mission of conserving and managing the nation’s natural resources.

The order revokes a Departmental Manual chapter on climate change, a Departmental Manual chapter on landscape-scale mitigation policy, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manual section on mitigation, and a 2016 BLM handbook on mitigation. The order additionally directs the head of BLM to reassess the BLM Draft Regional Mitigation Strategy for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and directs BLM to reissue a separate Bush-era guidance on offsite mitigation.

The now-rescinded policies had directed the DOI to take the threat of climate change and its foreseeable effects into account when making decisions. For example, the Departmental Manual chapter on climate change directed that the DOI “will use the best available science to increase understanding of climate change impacts, inform decisionmaking, and coordinate an appropriate response to impacts on land, water, wildlife, cultural and tribal resources, and other assets.”

Climate change is already having impacts across the US. Ignoring and failing to plan for its current and future effects puts America’s public lands, wildlife, and people at unnecessary risk.

Bernhardt is not qualified to run a science-based agency

The Department of the Interior should rely on science to make the best decisions for America’s parks, wildlife, and people. Time and time again, we have seen Bernhardt sideline science in critical DOI decisions. (He is also riddled with extensive conflicts of interest). There is no doubt that he would continue his siege on science if he is confirmed as Interior secretary.

Bernhardt is clearly unqualified to lead a science-based agency that makes decisions that affect so much of the country. Let’s hope the Senate agrees.

Taking Science Out of Air Pollution Protections

This post originally appeared on Scientific American

You and I enjoy cleaner air thanks to air pollution standards based on science. But now that could change. Last week, science advisors to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafted a letter criticizing the agency’s use of science to set ambient air pollutant standards. This is the latest development in the EPA’s process to update the health protective standards for particulate matter and ozone—the two air pollutants most responsible for early death and sickness in this country.

The letter, along with previous actions taken by EPA leadership and the agency’s clean air science advisors, raises alarm bells for anyone who understands the EPA’s careful consideration of science in air pollution policy. These developments risk unraveling the methodical process that, for decades, has effectively ensured we have science-based air pollution standards and steady reductions in air pollution—and much of these actions aren’t making many headlines. Here’s a rundown of recent changes to ambient air pollution standard updates and why all of this matters.

EPA leaders and CASAC are breaking with long-standing policy and practice that ensures science informs air pollution decision making.

We must first look at how the process is supposed to work. National ambient air pollution standards set by EPA must be based on science and at a level that “protects public health with an adequate margin of safety.” This means the EPA must only consider the science that answers the question of what protects all people, including sensitive populations, such as the elderly, children, and those with lung and heart diseases.

In assessing the science and the standards, the EPA relies on expert advice from the seven member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which has always been supplemented by a panel of additional experts on particular pollutants under review. These experts publicly debate and review the agency’s science assessment, that is, the document that summarizes all the relevant science we have on a relationship between an air pollutant and its health and welfare impacts. This crucial document informs how the EPA thinks about the risks posed by setting the standard at different levels and what the impact of such a policy will be more broadly. (In EPA speak, the Integrated Science Assessment informs the Risk and Exposure Assessment and the Policy Assessment.) CASAC, with help of the review panel, will then make an official recommendation for what level of air pollution will protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.

Together these three documents, and CASAC’s recommendation, go to the EPA administrator who will ultimately set the standard. Thus, CASAC and the scientific assessment are essential because they inform this entire process and ensure that the EPA is basing policies on the best available science. This is why changes to the process matter.

The Trump Administration is cutting science out of air pollution policy.

These challenges didn’t start with this month’s letter. Back in October, the EPA nixed the particulate matter review panel and failed to convene an ozone panel. As explained above, these panels of experts are meant to supplement the expertise and perspectives of CASAC and have played a crucial role in informing air pollution standards since the first CASAC reviews in 1978. Also last October, EPA leadership announced an aggressive timeline that would complete reviews of both particulate matter and ozone by 2020. This is the equivalent of lightning speed in the science policy world, and meeting such a timeline will mean fewer public meetings and fewer opportunities for the public and experts to provide input. A faster timeline, combined with a lack of pollutant panel to inform the standard, means that far less science can inform the air pollution standard than has in the past.

Before all this, a memo from then-administrator Scott Pruitt laid the groundwork for cutting science from air pollution standard updates. We are now seeing those recommendations come to fruition.

EPA doesn’t have the science advice it needs.

Without a review panel, science advice is left to the seven-member CASAC. To be clear, no seven people, even if top experts, would have the breadth and depth of expertise needed to fully review the EPA’s science assessment. The beast of a document draws from diverse fields, from epidemiology to toxicology to clinical medicine to ecology. And this isn’t just my opinion—members of the current CASAC themselves said in the draft letter that that they don’t have the needed expertise to conduct the review for particulate pollution.

On top of this hamstringing of the agency’s science advice, EPA already shook up its advisory committees. The agency kicked off its advisory committees anyone who had a current EPA grant. Paradoxically, EPA claimed this represented a conflict of interest, while scientists working directly for regulated industries did not. Following this new policy, the agency removed several independent experts from CASAC, replaced them with people from state and local regulatory agencies, and chose a chairperson with fringe scientific views who consults for the American Petroleum Institute. The resulting committee is missing representatives from key scientific disciplines such as epidemiology. It is difficult to argue that this new CASAC represents the top independent experts the scientific community has to offer.

Members of a flawed committee recommend upending EPA’s approach to science.

The letter from CASAC chair Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox Jr. released this month essentially trashes the EPA science assessment, inexplicably calling the lengthy, exhaustingly referenced document “unverifiable opinion” and claiming that it fails to follow the scientific method. Dr. Cox calls for a brand new approach, asking the agency to throw away the long used and scientifically backed weight-of-the-evidence framework in order to determine the health effects of air pollution.

It is hard to overstate just how jarring this is. With little explanation or scientific support, the CASAC chair is suggesting overturning a framework that has been supported by 11 past CASAC committees and 138 top scientists. Alarmingly, the committee could not come to consensus on a long-held scientific understanding: that fine particulate matter is linked to early death. Many thousands of studies in the past several decades have built evidence demonstrating this link. The fact that CASAC appears to be now renegotiating this long-held mainstream scientific understanding is breathtakingly backwards.

On March 28, CASAC will hold its next meeting to discuss the draft letter and the committee’s final recommendations on how EPA should finalize its science assessment. At this point, it is unclear what the committee will collectively decide, and whether they will have any consensus comments for the EPA. What is clear is that the EPA’s process for updating air pollution standards is changing in ways that threaten the agency’s very use of science to protect the public from air pollution. Regardless of what happens on March 28, and in this review process for particulate matter, we are witnessing this administration chip away at the foundation for air pollution protections in this country. And that puts us all at risk.

How the Green New Deal Can Unify Rather than Divide Us

The “Green New Deal,” which seemed to spring out of nowhere, has captured the attention of many of us who recognize that the need to prevent runaway climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. Its inspiring title calls to mind an era when our country worked together to pull out of a depression. Its main proponents are young people—who better than the up-and-coming generation to demand that the former one leaves behind a world that is habitable? And, it calls for action on a scale that aligns with the best available science.

Unfortunately, many who oppose acting on climate change are using the Green New Deal as a political football. Without putting forth any plan of their own, they caricature the concept to alarm voters with predictions of economic collapse and threats to personal freedom, and put the concept up to a vote on the senate floor, without the benefit of hearings and careful development of content. If this attack persists, what started out as a potentially unifying idea will become another fault line in American politics, occupying the same polarized landscape as health care, immigration, gun control, and many other issues.

Those of us who want to the United States to lead on climate change, whether such action is called a Green New Deal, or another inspiring frame (e.g., 100% clean energy by mid-century) must not let this happen. The key is to define the Green New Deal before the caricatures stick, by showing that, while it is ambitious, it is realistic and affordable.

We can succeed if we follow these principles:

Identify tried-and-true approaches and scale them up

When it comes to climate change, states really are the laboratories of American democracy. And they offer many proven successes to build upon.

Some 23 states have already adopted binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, most of which align well with the latest scientific evidence showing that we need to be at or close to “net zero” emissions by mid-century. These high-ambition states include not only blue coastal states, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, among others.

No fewer than 29 states have already adopted standards that require electric utilities to purchase increasing amounts of renewable energy and invest in energy efficiency. These standards are driving decreases in carbon emissions from the electric sector, saving consumers money on their electric bills, and gainfully employing thousands of Americans.

A number of states have launched mini “Green New Deals” of their own, successfully using public resources to jumpstart clean energy. For instance, fossil-fuel rich Texas led the way by investing approximately $7 billion in transmission lines to connect its windy plains to population centers, making it the sixth largest generator of wind energy in the world. And New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have committed to funding the construction of offshore wind turbines (either directly or through their utilities) on a giant scale.

Of course, the Green New Deal proposes to marshal federal resources to do much more than individual states can do on their own. But proven successes at the state level can form the backbone of the federal effort. Scaling them up is not only good policy (because we know they work), it is also good politics (because familiarity with them will diminish voters’ concerns about doing them as a federal initiative).

Deploy all effective solutions, not just ones favored by one “tribe” or the other

For example, while some climate activists are skeptical of market-based programs such as a tax or fee on carbon emissions, there should be room for this approach in a Green New Deal. A relatively modest carbon price can shift our electricity-generating mix toward low-carbon sources. On the other hand, those who favor carbon pricing should recognize its limitations. For example, it has not been shown to be effective on its own to address emissions from the transportation sector, now the nation’s largest source of global warming emissions. Other measures will be needed to lower carbon pollution from cars, buses, and trucks, such as extending a tax credit that helps consumers afford electric vehicles, establishing standards that prompt automakers to sell more electric cars, and investing in public transportation and emerging EV charging networks.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to embed in the Green New Deal a target of 100 percent renewable energy—a much better goal is 100 percent carbon-free energy (with renewables getting us a long way towards that goal). The latter leaves room for energy efficiency and non-renewable technologies, such as nuclear energy and fossil-fueled plants that can capture, store, or re-use carbon dioxide.

Being open to these solutions and allowing all carbon-free resources to compete against each other can help broaden support for a Green New Deal and make it more effective.

Focus on areas of agreement

The Green New Deal can also gain wider support by focusing on areas of agreement. For example, there is widespread agreement that storing energy is a lynchpin solution for both clean transportation and clean electricity. Yet the batteries used in electric cars are still too costly to make EVs affordable for many, and the batteries used to store electricity by utilities cannot cost-effectively store energy for extended periods, such as for a week of cloudy or windless weather. The Green New Deal can broaden its appeal by setting its sights on a large-scale public and private mobilization of research, development, and deployment of innovative technology.

The original New Deal wasn’t built in a day

President Roosevelt’s New Deal was not launched with one piece of legislation. It took hold through many different laws and regulations, enacted at different times as the political system allowed. Similarly, the Green New Deal in its entirety is unlikely to be established through one comprehensive bill. The Green New Deal resolution focuses primarily on limiting the emissions causing climate change, but it also promotes improvements in health care, housing, and jobs, which are critical to building a more just society. Our history and congressional dynamics suggest multiple bills over time will be needed to address these issues and even to tackle the climate issue alone.

The latest scientific reports are clear: we must act to dramatically cut emissions of heat-trapping gases, now—not later. And yet, last year, US carbon emissions rose by 3.4 percent—the biggest increase in eight years. The Green New Deal offers a fresh frame for the bold, ambitious action we need, but its success depends on defining it to draw us together, rather than set us apart.

Photo: 4kodiak/iStock

The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Continues to Weaken

This letter was originally posted by our partners at the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). PR-SPAN is a new initiative of Ciencia Puerto Rico that seeks to activate the Puerto Rican scientific community, wherever it may be, to inform the development and implementation of federal, state and local policies based on scientific basis. PR-SPAN and Ciencia Puerto Rico have been diligently following the important issue of the integrity of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics for many months now. As partners in support of science-based advocacy and policy making, the UCS Science Network is sharing their call for signatures to raise support for the independence and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.


Dear members of the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico,

We want to draw your attention and invite you to take action on an urgent public policy issue: the continued weakening of the governance of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). We invite you to sign and share the petition below.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

—The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)


We demand strong governance for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

During the past two years, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) has faced a series of threats that have undermined its autonomy, credibility, and reputation. From 2017 to date, the administration of the Hon. Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has illegally removed members from the Board of Directors, tried to dismantle the Institute and outsource its functions, and made appointments to the Board that have been questioned by the international scientific community. In January 2019, there were allegations about the politicization of the Board of Directors and their ability to act independently and free of partisan influences. As of February 10, 2019 the role of executive director of the Institute has been vacant, after the resignation of Dr. Mario Marazzi Santiago, who had served in this role since 2007.

These events not only cast doubt on the future of the Institute of Statistics, but also create serious concerns about the capacity of the Puerto Rican government and society to make decisions and create public policies informed by scientific evidence and by statistics that are timely, reliable, and of high-quality.

Therefore, we ask the Government of Puerto Rico and the Board of Directors of the Institute of Statistics to take the following actions to strengthen the governance, independence and autonomy of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics:

  • Maintain the powers and faculties of the Executive Director to protect the independence of PRIS: Any future amendments made to the organic law of the Institute should seek to strengthen the governance and independence of the agency, but without weakening the powers and faculties of the Executive Director, and without granting more power to the Board of Directors or the Governor.
  • Dissociate the Governor and Puerto Rico Senate from the process of nominating and confirming members to the PRIS Board of Directors: Currently, the members of the PRIS Board of Directors are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. To avoid the possibility of partisan influence, we ask that the nomination and confirmation process to the Board of Directors of the Statistics Institute be dissociated from the government in turn (similar to the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the Puerto Rico Science Trust).
  • Strengthen the PRIS Board as an independent, objective body of experts: We ask that candidates to the PRIS Board of Directors (1) are nominated by scientific associations or professional and industrial groups that represent the relevant fields of specialization; (2) are experts with integrity, personal and professional objectivity, demonstrated expertise, and advanced academic preparation (a master’s or doctoral degree) in the use of statistics, economics or planning; (3) do not have direct connections to the current or previous government administrations (i.e. not having held elective public office during at least five (5) years prior to their appointment; not having participated, collaborated or made political or financial contributions to political candidates or campaigns, as suggested in Article 2 of P. de la C. 4409 from May 12, 2008 [Word document], presented by the Representative and now Resident Commissioner Hon. Jennifer González-Colón).
  • The search and appointment of the next Executive Director is done transparently and in consultation with the Puerto Rican and international scientific community: The scientific community has demonstrated time and again its commitment to the autonomy of the PRIS and government transparency in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the members of PR-SPAN and UCS, and members of the Puerto Rican and international scientific community are willing to actively participate in the nomination, search and selection process for the next Executive Director of the PRIS. It is of the utmost importance that the Executive Director has the relevant expertise, and is committed to the independence and autonomy of the Institute, and to keeping it free from partisan influences.

We urge the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico to join this petition and continue advocating for the autonomy, independence, reputation and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.


Carlos M. De León-Rodríguez is a PR-SPAN ambassador, was also part of the inaugural class of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program. He is an advocate for evidence-based policy making.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Trump’s Proposed 2020 Budget Takes Aim at Science (Again)

The president’s budget signals a clear antipathy towards action on climate change, with a host of cuts to climate research, adaptation, and even energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

Earlier this week, President Trump unveiled his proposed budget for 2020, calling it a “Budget for a Better America.”

Better for whom?

Even a quick and high-level look at the spending increases and spending cuts in the proposal demonstrates that the Trump administration is out of touch with the American people. The president’s budget calls for dramatic increases in new defense spending ($750 billion!) and—wait for it—$8.6 billion for his wall along the border with Mexico.

It’s the domestic programs that take the hit. The budget slashes programs that provide health care, food, and housing assistance to our nation’s families. It proposes reductions in tax credits that help keep working families out of poverty.

Predictably, the president’s budget once again takes aim at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proposing a 31 percent cut in the agency charged with ensuring safeguards critical to our nation’s health—clean air, clean water, and chemical safety, along with disaster preparedness and response.

The president’s budget also signals his clear antipathy towards action on climate change, with a host of cuts to climate research, adaptation, and even energy efficiency and renewable energy. These include:

  • Completely eliminating the EPA’s Global Climate Change Research Office
  • Cutting the Climate Adaptation Science Center in the Department of the Interior by nearly 50 percent
  • Completely eliminating Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) (energy innovation be damned!)
  • A whopping 70 percent decrease in funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy. (In contrast, DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy Research & Development would get an additional $6o million.)
  • Elimination of the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices that can help them adapt to a changing climate
  • Elimination of two planned Earth science missions at NASA aimed at understanding climate systems
  • Elimination of the tax credit to decrease the cost of an electric vehicle
A “Better America” runs on science

Science. It creates knowledge. It spurs innovation. It identifies and anticipates problems and risks. It trains and mentors the next generation of STEM professionals for critical roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It creates jobs. It fuels our nation’s competitiveness. But all this seems to be lost on the Trump administration as it chips away at the federal science budget.

The president’s budget calls for cuts to science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and even the National Science Foundation, which is the mainstay of grant-making for tens of thousands of scientists across the country.  This is shockingly short-sighted, with long-term implications for our nation’s scientific enterprise.

You be the judge. Would President Trump’s budget result in a better America? Better for the health, safety, and livelihoods of the American people? Or perhaps it’s simply better for a select group of special friends and special interests.

Good news

There is a silver lining here. The president’s budget is simply a wish list. Congress controls the purse, and over the next months, appropriators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives will decide what gets funded and where to spend taxpayer dollars. Last year, Congress restored many of the president’s proposed cuts to science agencies and actually boosted research funding in some cases.

It’s not too early to let your congressional representatives know what you, as a constituent, think makes for a better America—what government safeguards, programs, and services are important to you and integral to the health and safety of our families and communities.

At UCS, we will be watching the budget process unfold and look forward to working with Congress to fund the government in a way that really will make for a better America.

A Comment Guide for Fighting the EPA’s Attacks on Mercury Standards and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Download the public comment guide. 

A couple of days after Christmas last year, during the federal government shut-down, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler somehow found time to issue a pernicious proposal to undermine a crucial clean air rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal-fired power plants.

More insidiously, the proposal is an attack on long-standing legal, economic and regulatory precedent on cost-benefit analysis—and as a result could have far-reaching consequences for many other public health protections. That’s why we’re asking experts–and anybody who cares about science and public health—to weigh in and submit comments on this proposal by April 17.

UCS has just issued a new public comment guide to support those efforts.

Attendees at a December 2011 hearing on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The EPA’s Clean Air Act standards protect the health of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr

What’s behind the EPA proposal?

The 2012 MATS standard for coal-fired power plants was aimed at addressing the single largest industrial source of mercury at the time. The standards also limit other hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen chloride, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, and nickel. These toxic pollutants can cause or contribute to neurological damage in developing fetuses, chronic respiratory diseases, various cancers, and other severe damage to human health and ecosystems.

These first-ever standards came 30 (!) years after Congress directed the EPA to study the public health threat of air toxics from coal-fired power plants, and to limit this pollution under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act if the EPA found regulation “appropriate and necessary.” The agency made and confirmed that determination several times, including in 2016 as part of a detailed supplementary finding where the agency specifically took costs of compliance into account.

Now the EPA is seeking to undermine MATS by reversing the prerequisite finding that this regulation is “appropriate and necessary.” The agency is basing its current proposal on a deeply flawed and narrow evaluation of the costs and benefits of this standard, essentially inflating its costs and stripping down its benefits, to deliver an outcome firmly tilted in favor of polluters.

For more on the EPA’s attack on MATS, please read UCS Executive Director Kathy Rest’s recent blog posts here and here.

Eviscerating the value of health benefits

How significant are the public health benefits of implementing MATS? Well, in 2011 the EPA estimated that once MATS was in place, each year 11,000 fewer people would die prematurely and there would be 130,000 fewer asthma attacks and and 4,700 fewer heart attacks—resulting in monetized savings on the order of $37 billion to $90 billion each year. Meanwhile they estimated costs to be on the order of $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.

A big part of why MATS is so valuable to public health is that the same technologies and measures that help limit mercury and other toxic pollutants also help limit other harmful pollutants that are produced when coal is burnt, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). This simultaneous and significant reduction in multiple harmful pollutants is a major bonus for public health, worth billions of dollars annually.

Now, however, the agency is trying to ignore these clear public health benefits and focusing instead on a narrow definition of benefits that only considers the benefits from reducing the directly targeted pollutants (mercury and other air toxics) while completely eliminating the significant co-benefits of PM reductions.

What’s more, data from the US Energy Information Administration also show that the power sector’s actual costs of complying with MATS turned out to be far lower than initially estimated. The EPA’s current proposal ignores these recent data, however, and still uses the older, higher cost numbers from its 2011 regulatory impact analysis for MATS.

Far-reaching consequences

The craziest part of all this is that the EPA is attacking the essential foundation of MATS while claiming to leave the standard itself in place.

In a sense it has no choice: virtually all coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS and utilities have already made the necessary investments in pollution control technologies. The reality is that MATS is already a fait accompli.

So why take this action now?

The Wheeler EPA has its eyes set on the more far-reaching and consequential effects of finalizing this proposal. Specifically, formalizing this distorted method of cost-benefit analysis would make it easier to weaken a range of regulations under the Clean Air Act and other public health laws, including the agency’s actions to regulate global warming emissions.

And regardless of what the agency claims, it does also put MATS on precarious ground. The end result of finalizing this egregious proposal could very well be that MATS is rescinded. It could even go as far as creating a risk that the agency removes power plants from the list of sources regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act (which addresses hazardous air pollutants like mercury). The agency itself acknowledges these risks by seeking comment on these specific issues in the proposal.

Taken together, these potential impacts would be a huge blow to public health—and a boon to polluters.

Send your comments to the EPA!

The mission of the EPA is to protect public health and the environment, which makes it hard to believe that the agency actually wants to argue against the value of limiting harmful emissions of mercury and air toxics—but that’s exactly what the EPA under the Trump administration is seeking to do.

If any of this sounds ludicrous to you, it should. (And you’ll probably find grim solace in my colleague Julie’s scathing takedown of rulemaking in the Trump era.)

But you can do something about it: your comments are vital to restoring science to the rule-making process. If you’re a public health expert, a legal scholar, an economist specializing in cost-benefit analysis, an expert who sees the everyday impacts of toxic pollution in your community, or a parent who worries about the impacts of mercury on children, your voice matters.

We realize that regulatory proposals and rule-making processes can be complicated, so we’ve broken it down for you in an easy-to-use comment guide. In it, we’ve highlighted four key areas for your comments and provided more information related to each of them. They include the EPA:

  • refusing to consider all benefits when evaluating the “worth” of a rule;
  • ignoring unquantified direct benefits of reducing air toxics;
  • relying on outdated information and disregarding new information; and
  • undermining the public health gains from MATS and potentially other public health protections.

Detailed, individual comments that draw on your expertise and experience are of greatest value. Were this rule to face legal challenge (which is a virtual certainty if the proposal is finalized), the EPA will have to reckon with the record of substantive comments in court.

Tell Administrator Wheeler to take back this harmful proposal and leave MATS, and its underlying foundation, in place. The public health protections we rely on are at stake.

Photo: SvetaZi/iStock USEPA/Flickr

The Scientific Integrity Act is Good for Science and Good for Government

Today, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, legislation that would give scientists who work for government agencies the right to share their research with the public, ensure that government communication of science is accurate, and protect science in policy decisions from political interference. The bill empowers federal scientists to share their personal opinions as informed experts. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings. Anyone reading this post should reach out to their representative and senators to urge co-sponsorship of this important bill.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Interior, and Food and Drug Administration are supposed to use independent science to protect and improve public health and the environment. Much of the time, they do. But presidential administrations want excessive control over information that comes out of federal agencies—especially if it doesn’t support the policies they want to put forward. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to base public health and environmental protection decisions not on sound science but on something that sounds like science, but isn’t. This makes people sicker and degrades the environment.

Today, members of Congress introduced a bill to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies and enhance protections for government scientists. Photo: USDA

The Scientific Integrity Act would require federal agencies that conduct or utilize science to set up systems to prevent and address attacks on science. Any federal agency addressing science would designate a scientific integrity officer, develop a scientific integrity policy that includes a set of minimum standards, and provide scientific integrity and ethics trainings. Currently, some agencies have had the resources to devote more staff time and resources to scientific integrity than others, and we see the results of this when we look at scientists awareness of the policy and enforcement of its provisions.

Much of the bill is focused on protecting scientists’ rights to communicate their research. You may have thought that this was obvious: don’t scientists who work for NASA or EPA already have the freedom to publicly share their expertise? Well, yes and no. Widespread censorship of science and scientists in the past led federal agencies to develop or improve media and scientific integrity policies that are supposed to protect this right. These polices, however, lack the force of law, and vary agency to agency in terms of their comprehensiveness and effectiveness.

That’s why it’s easier for the White House to try to get away with censoring a study on chemical contamination of drinking water. It’s why employees can be reprimanded for tweeting about climate change.

It’s why, according to surveys, federal scientists are self-censoring and keeping a low profile rather than risk the ire of their political superiors. 631 federal scientists reported having been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work and another 703 federal scientists reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. Policies that better protect scientists communication would help address censorship and self-censorship.

The bill also requires some public reporting as to agency scientific integrity performance, and gives the White House Office of Scientific Integrity Policy some purview over policy implementation. We will do our best to work with the committee to strengthen the reporting and existing policies portions of the legislation as it moves through Congress.

To be sure, there are other steps needed to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking—increasing data disclosure and transparency in decisionmaking, reducing conflicts of interest on science advisory boards, and ensuring that we know when scientists within government disagree with each other, just to name a few. But no one piece of legislation will solve everything.

We all deserve access to the scientific analysis that the government creates, as well as access to the experts who can interpret that information. States, local governments, and individuals all depend on the federal government to help understand the risks we face and how to keep our families and communities safe. From consumer product safety to prescription drugs to air pollution, we are all better off when the scientists who work for government have the basic right to share what they know free from political interference.

This bill is absolutely an essential building block to strengthen the role of science in policymaking that deserves swift consideration in the House and Senate. Bravo to Senator Schatz and Representative Tonko for introducing this legislation and advocating for its passage. Please ask your representatives in the House and Senate to co-sponsor this bill.

Bury the Science, Then Claim It Doesn’t Exist: Interior Department Undermines Arctic Drilling Review

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Laws are good to have.

Take the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to complete a science-based  Environmental Impact Assessment for any project that might damage the surrounding landscape, endanger wildlife, or cause other environmental harm. This helps ensure the wise use of science to protect our nation’s world-class natural heritage.

Another great law? The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires federal agencies to provide copies of federal documents upon request. This helps ensure a transparent government in the public interest.

When federal agencies fail to honor either of these laws, they get sued. But what about when they fail to honor both of those laws…at the same time…intentionally? We are about to find out, thanks to the latest scandal that emerged this week from President Trump’s Interior Department.

According to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and posted online this week, the Interior Department failed to consider [login required] more than a dozen internal memos from staff scientists raising scientific and environmental concerns about proposed oil and gas operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These were not minor concerns; the memos described significant data gaps for understanding the habitat, and proposed studies that would be necessary to meet regulatory requirements. To make matters worse, the Department refused, when requested via FOIA, to disclose that these important documents even existed.

This failure is striking because the Arctic Refuge is one of the most sensitive protected areas on Earth as well as a sacred area for the Gwich’in people—the agency knew that its activities would be closely scrutinized. Indeed, over the past few decades efforts to drill in this sensitive area were rebuffed by Congress or the president time after time. It took a Republican sweep of the House, the Senate, and the White House to put drilling on the table, and it still required a rider on the 2017 tax reform law to start the process.

For Americans concerned about the environment and environmental justice for Alaska Natives, efforts to industrialize the coastal plain of the refuge would be a disaster. So all eyes were on the process, begun by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, to quickly get oil and gas leasing underway there.

And yet, in the Trump Administration’s march to drill everything they can while they still can, the environmental review was rushed, incomplete, and by all accounts a cut and paste operation using out-of-date research. While the sloppiness of the work left the review legally vulnerable, the release of these memos suggests this was more than just a slipshod rush-job; it suggests there was an intentional effort to hide scientific findings/concerns that may have slowed down the administration’s rush to drill.

In some ways this is not surprising—the agency is now led by Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, a walking conflict of interest and former oil and gas lobbyist whose micromanaging has bottlenecked everything from science grants to National Park restoration projects. According to one lawsuit already underway, his former clients “began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months since his swearing-in.” Doesn’t sound like a by-the-book guy, but this latest gaffe indicates an even more cynical attitude toward the laws of the land.

Despite the Trump Administration’s numerous depredations of science and the environment, Americans—and Congress—still expect public servants to actually serve the public rather than provide handouts to industry and former clients. Bernhardt and his political staff must explain why they buried important scientific information and then denied its very existence, and face the legal consequences for doing so. Anything less is a betrayal of the public trust, and certainly disqualifies Bernhardt from his current role as a public servant.