Photo: Getty

Every policy the Environmental Protection Agency implements is backed up by science. Datasets and research conclusions lie behind every proposal. And at the heart of this research are actual people, whose data is often hidden in order to protect their privacy.

Now, the agency wants to end the use of such “secret science,” as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt put it in an interview with conservative news site The Daily Caller a couple weeks ago, when crafting policy. While the proposal is being spun as an attempt to step up standards, what it would actually do is limit the number of public health studies on which officials can base protections for communities of color and low-income residents that are already exposed to disproportionate amounts of pollution.

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“This is another example of how industry is using this administration to slow down, weaken, and make critical health data less available in decision making thereby weakening policy, which will have a detrimental effect on protecting the lives of our children and most vulnerable communities,” said Mustafa Ali, former EPA environmental justice chair who is now a senior vice president at the Hip-Hop Caucus, in an email to Earther.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
Photo: AP

Raw data that includes confidential and sensitive details like patient names, addresses, and medical histories make up a large component of public health research. Think about the blood lead level work that went into investigating the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Or all the research on asthma prevalence and causes. There’s also the research linking fracking and low birth weights.

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The study of most concern, though, is the 1993 Six Cities study from the Harvard School of Public Health. This landmark study found that air pollution can increase mortality. It helped shape current EPA regulations on particulate matter, which comes from cars and power plants, enters the lungs, and can reach the bloodstream, leading to both breathing and heart problems. Its authors followed 8,111 adults across six U.S. cities for more than 10 years to come to these conclusions. A study like this is just not easily replicable. And because of confidentiality agreements with the research subjects, the data isn’t likely to be released.

“The science has been very solid, but opponents always target that one [study],” said Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Center for Science at Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, to Earther.

The way Goldman sees it, the EPA does not exist to police science and deem what counts as credible. That’s why we have the peer-review process. “That allows scientists to maintain a high standard of quality in work, and it doesn’t generally require the release of raw data,” she went on. Even if scientists do share this type of data with one another, that doesn’t mean they share it publicly.

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Doing so could ruin efforts to build trust with communities of color, in particular, Goldman worries. Blacks and Latinos share a long, abusive history with the scientific community—one researchers are still trying to repair. So do Native Americans. Putting patients’ and participants’ information on blast for the world to see doesn’t sound like the best way to remedy historical trauma.

If they were to redact and de-identify patients in the data sets of the 50,000 studies the agency looks at a year, the EPA would need to spend $250 million a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. New requirements to protect sensitive information could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 per study. Who’s gon’ pay for that?

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“This is an unfunded mandate where [the EPA] has all this work to do but no money to do it,” said Sean Gallagher, the senior government relations officer with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to Earther.

While the proposal text isn’t out yet, a similar proposal championed by Texas Republican Lamar Smith in 2015 was criticized by science advocates and touted by industry leaders. Gallagher and the association believe Pruitt’s proposal, like Smith’s, would inject politics into science, while threatening the health of communities across the U.S.

“Our contention is that making the EPA only use data that’s raw or public will eliminate a large swath of science that would help lower-income communities or communities of color or urban communities and, really, all communities,” he said.

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