The EPA’s proposal would take good science out of public health regulations

It’s impossible to set safety standards without confidential health data.
A factory with smoke
Health studies help us set standards for clean, safe air. DepositPhoto

The draft of a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal obtained by The New York Times outlines policies that would seriously limit the use of scientific research in setting public health regulations—and perhaps even allow the government to roll back evidence-based protections that are already in place.

The Hill reports that, according to the EPA, the “leaked, preliminary draft version” of the proposed change published in The New York Times does not accurately reflect the agency’s submission to The White House. But scientists have been bracing for such changes since 2018, when Scott Pruitt—who has since resigned as administrator of the EPA—spoke of making policy decisions based only on “publicly available” data.

“The science that we use is going to be transparent, it’s going to be reproducible,” Pruitt said at a press conference in April of last year. Current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler echoed those sentiments before a congressional committee in September. “Good science is science that can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny,” he said. “That is why we’re moving forward to ensure that the science supporting agency decisions is transparent and available for evaluation by the public and stakeholders.”

The problem, as PopSci reported last year, is that while transparency and reproducibility are hard to argue with at face value, in this particular case they make it nearly impossible to protect America from potential pollutants.

Nearly all public health studies—where researchers track the health outcomes of individuals over time to determine how various factors, including environmental toxins, have impacted them—rely on the sharing of sensitive health data, which must be protected under confidentiality agreements.

Scientists pushed back with an open letter to Pruitt. Unfortunately, the proposal draft published by The New York Times is even worse than Pruitt’s original. Should the White House approve this new set of rules, scientists would have to provide the EPA with their raw data for virtually any study under consideration, and guidelines set based on previously published research could be reevaluated and revoked for failing to be “transparent.”

You can read more about the potential pitfalls of demanding data transparency—and the life-saving EPA standards that depend on obscured medical data—in this 2018 article from PopSci.