EPA's science is under attack: What you need to know

Diane Regas

For decades, scientists have known that the more we reduce soot and other particulate matter in the air we breathe, the healthier we’ll be. So how can the man in charge of environmental protection for our nation suddenly claim that this established truth no longer holds true?

Because for the first time in modern history, the United States has a government that rejects settled science and claims that evidence doesn’t matter because it no longer fits the administration’s agenda.

We have leaders who, in the face of catastrophic storms, insist there is no such thing as climate change – and who tell us that facts are nothing more than opinions.

The Trump administration is even rigging the very process of providing unbiased scientific advice to the government by changing the rules for who can serve on science advisory boards, and by nominating people with a history of downplaying the health impacts of pollution to such boards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ground zero for the administration’s anti-science campaign. At stake is not just our health and future, but also America’s standing and influence in the world.

Pruitt’s polluters-first agenda

Science is about learning and it never stands still. But science also consists of building blocks that help us increase our knowledge over time, and to find ever-better solutions to the challenges we face.

Today, a vast majority of scientists agree that particle pollution is bad for public health and that climate change is real – even as they continue to learn more about both.

And yet, since Scott Pruitt took over the EPA in February, he has blocked, removed or sought to delay more than 30 rules that protect clean air, water and public health – including the landmark Clean Power Plan. He also pushed for the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Such steps, which fly in the face of today’s science, will have a direct result on public health and especially affect children who are more vulnerable to lead poisoning, asthma and dangerous chemicals in products and foods.

It begs the question “why?” What makes Pruitt not want to hear from independent scientists?

We can only surmise it’s because the answers he would get won’t fit his agenda. This agenda, as you know, is to prop up yesterday’s energy interests, industries that have bankrolled his entire career.

EPA’s key scientific advisory board a prime target

Under Pruitt’s new rules for EPA’s Science Advisory Board, scientists who get EPA research grants – a huge pool of neutral experts – would be banned from serving. This way, if the EPA picks the absolute best toxicologist to do needed research, the advisory panel would have to settle for the second best to determine if our air and water are clean.

It would tip the balance of advice strongly toward those who are funded by industry, people who are not banned by Pruitt’s purported conflict-of-interest rule. Pruitt’s logic is that you can take money from Exxon-Mobil or even a foreign government and he’ll welcome your advice – but get a grant from the agency itself and he considers you tainted.

As chair of the board, Pruitt chose Texan Michael Honeycutt. This man has a record of diminishing the effect of toxic chemicals ranging from ozone to benzene, and claimed that “some studies even suggest that [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

It’s not surprising to hear people at the EPA talk about repressive tactics that make it increasingly difficult for scientists to do their jobs.

Why I still have hope

Powerful interests with ideological, political or economic agendas are politicizing science and we’re all losers in this new reality. Except, the battle over science at the EPA and other U.S. government agencies is far from over.

Polls consistently show that Americans are waking up to the erosion of environmental protections they’ve long taken for granted. The latest poll, from Chapman University, shows the fears for the environmental now make up four of 10 things Americans worry most about for the first time in the survey’s history.

Importantly, American scientists continue to stand side by side with their international colleagues and their work continues – regardless of who rules at the EPA or in the White House.

I have hope that over time, they will prevail.

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