Over a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency asked the country’s top scientific body to pore over six years of studies into how air pollution affects human health. It was a move meant to quell critics who questioned the safety of conducting such research.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finally released its findings on Tuesday, offering a resounding endorsement of the EPA’s protocol for conducting tests on human subjects, along with a few suggestions on how to make the tests safer.
The 159-page report makes for humdrum reading, but its timing injects the analysis with a sense of urgency. Lawmakers emboldened by the Trump administration’s assault on environmental regulations have moved to change the way science is used to draft policy to open the door to more industry-friendly or ideologically driven research.
Last month, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology invited a coal lawyer, a chemical industry lobbyist and a libertarian scholar who has accused the EPA of “regulatory terrorism” to testify alongside a lone advocate for science as witnesses before a congressional hearing titled “Making EPA Great Again.” On Tuesday, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), convened another hearing, “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method,” will “examine the scientific method and process as it relates to climate change” and “focus on the underlying science that helps inform policy decisions,” according to a hearing charter. To do that, Smith fleshed out his four-person panel with a trio of prominent, like-minded climate change skeptics and attacked the credibility of Science magazine.
The report released Tuesday assesses the treatment of more than 800 participants across 21 studies the EPA conducted from 2009 to 2016, and how that research influenced policies to protect the public from toxic air pollution. But the takeaway can be applied to the agency’s overall use of science in rule-making, according to Robert Hiatt, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The studies the EPA conducts are valuable,” Hiatt, the report’s lead author, told The Huffington Post by phone Monday. “They contribute knowledge to making important decisions for the public.”
He said the timing of the report, commissioned roughly 18 months ago by the Obama administration’s EPA, was a fluke.
“It is totally bizarre and coincidental that, at the same time, this issue has come to the floor on the national political scene,” Hiatt said. “The fact that they’re colliding this week is totally by chance. But the relevant information is still important.”
Hiatt and his team of 14 other researchers dug deep into eight experiments in particular, called controlled human inhalation exposure, or CHIE, studies that typically subject participants to hours of a pollutant to see how it affects lung function. The results of those studies are used to set EPA standards for air quality under the Clean Air Act.
The agency’s scientific methods, however, weren’t without flaw. In one study, Hiatt found that a 58-year-old woman suffered an irregular heartbeat during a test. Doctors immediately hospitalized her, and she was discharged two hours later when she was determined to be fine. It’s not clear whether her heart rate hastened by exposure during the test or by chance due to chronic disease. Hiatt recommended EPA researchers increase the amount of information given to participants before tests. But the incident marked the only one of 845 cases that went awry, and Hiatt said researchers handled it appropriately.
“The safety of the individual was never in question,” Hiatt said. “It now becomes a political decision by the country’s deciders about what to do with this information.”