The Trump administration’s environmental denialism runs much deeper than global warming. That became clear just one month into the presidency, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where panelist Steve Milloy—formerly a paid flack for the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and member of the president’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team—argued that the mainstream science on the health risks of air pollution was wrong. Contra the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and most publishing epidemiologists, Milloy insisted that excessive particulate matter is not linked to premature death—and that scientists who advise the EPA made up evidence to support the Obama administration’s regulatory priorities. “These people validate and rubber-stamp the EPA’s conclusion that air pollution kills people,” he said. His co-panelists nodded in agreement.
Milloy called for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to overhaul the agency’s scientific advisory boards, the bodies that ensure public health regulations are based on sound, peer-reviewed science. Milloy said scientists who receive EPA grants are biased toward regulation, and thus Pruitt should ban them from serving on the boards. He and his co-panelists also argued for more representation from polluting industries, which clearly do have a bias against regulation.
Milloy and others on the anti-environmental fringe are getting their wish. On Tuesday, Pruitt announced massive changes to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council, both of which advise EPA on the science behind proposed regulations. Pruitt announced that EPA will no longer appoint scientists who have received grants from the agency to these boards. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency,” he said. Pruitt is also expected to replace every single member whose term is expiring instead of renewing some for a second term, as is common practice. Terry Yosie, former director of the Science Advisory Board during the Reagan administration, told me, “It’s fair to say that this has never happened to this sweeping degree before of existing board members whose terms are expiring this year.”
These changes have been expected for several weeks, but it’s all the more concerning when we look at who these new advisors are. A list of expected appointees to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, obtained by the Post, E&E News, and The New Republic, shows that Pruitt is expected to appoint multiple people who have downplayed the impact of air pollution on public health. These deniers will have the influence to contort EPA science, leading to the weakening or even repeal of clean-air regulations that protected Americans for decades.
Of the 17 new members expected to be appointed to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), three hail from large fossil-fuel companies: Southern Company, Phillips 66, and Total. Three are from red-state governments; one is from a chemical industry trade association; the rest are from various universities and consulting groups. Five of the 17 hold views on air pollution that are outside of the scientific mainstream. Of the three new members expected to be appointed to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council (CASAC), one is an air pollution skeptic.
Most toxicologists and epidemiologists accept that air pollution can harm humans, and that excessive air pollution can lead to death in vulnerable populations (like children and the elderly). That’s why the government regulates it—principally under the Clean Air Act, a widely popular law passed in 1963 and amended multiple times with unanimous or overwhelming support in the Senate. Through that law, we have various regulations on specific air pollutants, including National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and ground-level ozone.
Several expected SAB appointees will likely argue that these regulations should be weakened. Michael Honeycutt, the director of toxicology at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), has been aggressively seeking a spot on one of the scientific advisory boards since last year. He is “one of the top ozone science doubters in the state,” according to a 2016 profile in the Houston Press:
Honeycutt is the guy who has been leading the charge against making any changes to air quality standards in Texas. He and a bunch of TCEQ scientists have followed in the footsteps of Republicans in Texas and across the country in vowing to oppose EPA air quality changes until the end of time, more or less. He’s stated in the past he’s against any measures to reduce air pollution mainly because he feels they would be too expensive. Aside from that, Honeycutt reasons that ozone levels aren’t an issue at all because “most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors” so they’re rarely exposed to significant layers of ozone.
The EPA considers ozone a harmful air pollutant. “Reducing ozone pollution makes breathing easier,” the agency’s website reads. “Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.” Honeycutt, who’s been trying to undercut the scientific basis for smog regulations since 2010, argues that people aren’t outside long enough for high levels of ozone exposure to make a difference.
Robert Phalen, who directs the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California Irvine, is not an obvious ideologue like Honeycutt, but his research findings would support a deregulatory agenda for air pollution. “The relative risks associated with modern [particulate matter] are very small and confounded by many factors,” he wrote in a 2004 study. “Neither toxicology studies nor human clinical investigations have identified the components and/or characteristics of [particulate matter] that might be causing the health-effect associations.” Phalen has argued that the air is currently too clean, because children’s lungs need to breathe irritants in order to learn how to fight them. “Modern air,” he said in 2012, “is a little too clean for optimum health.”
Anne Smith, an analyst at NERA Economic Consulting, has argued against President Barack Obama’s signature climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan. Specifically, she took issue with how his administration classified the health risks of particulate matter. She contends that one can’t know for certain whether a death during, for instance, a smog event was directly caused by air pollution. Mainstream scientists acknowledge as much, but say the strong statistical correlation between death rates and pollution rates are enough to prove the risks. Smith disagrees.
The rest of the expected nominees are similarly skeptical. The University of North Carolina’s Richard Smith is the author of a recent peer-reviewed study that found “No association of acute deaths with levels of PM2.5 or ozone.” Stanley Young, a listed expert at the climate-denying Heartland Institute, has written that there is “empirical evidence and a logical case that air pollution is (most likely) not causally related to acute deaths.” And Tony Cox—the one expected to be appointed to the clean air board—has long argued that the public health benefits of reducing ozone pollution are “unwarranted and exaggerated.”
Unlike with climate change, which scientists overwhelmingly agree is driven by humans, some peer-reviewed studies cast doubt on air pollution’s health impacts. But other peer-reviewed studies say air pollution’s health risks are even greater than we currently assume. And the majority of scientists agree that air pollution poses a threat to public health, and can trigger death in vulnerable populations. The disproportionate number of doubters on Pruitt’s science advisory team doesn’t reflect that robust debate happening within the scientific community. Instead, it drastically tips the scales in favor of Pruitt’s deregulatory policy agenda. Or as Milloy, the EPA transition team member and CPAC panelist put it on Tuesday afternoon, “More winning!”