As the post-mortem on the 2016 presidential campaign continues, one theme that has resonated with political analysts is the role of fake news — but this is news is far from new. It may be Pizzagate today, but fake news has a long history, especially in the form of junk science with a pro-industry agenda. Climate change deniers — including those ascending to power in Washington — are living proof that fake news, and the junk science it often spins, can have real life implications.
Scott Pruitt, the man tapped by the Trump administration to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is among these incoming leaders whose policies and priorities are shaped by fake news and junk science. His nomination is a red flag signaling President-elect Trump is making good on campaign promises to eviscerate the EPA, putting corporate profits above public health and safety.
Pruitt is unabashedly pro-business, anti-regulation, and anti-science. He has served as Attorney General of Oklahoma since 2011and has no formal training, education or professional experience in any of the physical sciences. Even more concerning than Pruitt’s woeful lack of relevant scientific background is his exhibited willingness to be a mouthpiece and champion for corporate interests. On his own LinkedIn profile, he boasts about his efforts in opposition of the very agency he’s been tapped to run, describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” A 2014 investigation by the New York Times found that, “Energy industry lobbyists drafted letters for [Pruitt] to send to the EPA the Interior Department, the Office of Management and Budget and even President Obama.”
Lobbyists Would Love Pruitt’s EPA
This penchant for siding with industry is of significant concern to the public health and environmental communities. The asbestos industry has dumped millions into funding “independent research” that claims asbestos to be safe. This junk science — aided by weak chemical regulation laws — foiled a 1989 attempt by the EPA to ban the known human carcinogen.
To most, banning a toxin as notorious as asbestos would be common sense, but Pruitt’s history of suing the EPA to overturn commonsense regulations is especially troubling given the recent success the asbestos victims community celebrated. This summer, Congress passed Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act (LCSA), an historic bipartisan and bicameral bill that finally empowered the EPA to evaluate and regulate toxic chemicals. When he signed the bill into law in June, President Obama singled out asbestos as the clear poster child for the need for the reform. On November 29, the EPA echoed this by announcing asbestos would be among the first ten high-risk chemicals addressed under the Lautenberg Act.
The Lautenberg Act places enforceable deadlines and guidelines around impending chemical safety analyses. However, a pro-business, anti-regulation EPA could be more susceptible than ever to industry-backed junk science that could derail progress toward meaningful chemical regulations.
Corporate Hijack Already in Progress
The chemical industry is already positioning itself to exert influence over the Lautenberg Act implementation process. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) launched the “Center for Chemical Safety Act Implementation,” and have already offered their own diagnosis of EPA’s testing methods, and their prescription to remedy this with their own science. To those of us who have gone toe-to-toe with ACC for years, this is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by the industry to hijack the process in order to protect profit margins by evading regulation, regardless of the collateral damage.
Almost immediately after the Lautenberg Act became law, ACC began lobbying for certain uses of asbestos to be exempted from any forthcoming restriction or ban. On August 24, 2016, ACC wrote a letter to the EPA asking for the agency to take into special consideration the chlor-alkali industry’s use of asbestos. What they failed to mention in the letter is that the chlor-alkali industry used approximately 95% of the asbestos consumed in the United States in 2015, according to newly released data by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). And the day asbestos was confirmed in the list of the top ten chemicals to be evaluated under the Lautenberg Act, the ACC circulated a press release trying to claim that earning high-risk priority status does not necessarily mean a chemical is dangerous.
Preventing a Repeat of Deadly History
The Lautenberg Act assessments and regulations slated to take place in the coming years are the product of nearly a decade of collaborative, nonpartisan legislative work. The dozens of Congressional leaders who worked so hard to pass this life-saving legislation must ensure their work was not in vain. During the confirmation process, Pruitt must be reminded that this landmark piece of legislation is not the result of the “EPA’s activist agenda,” as he puts it, but the express will of Congress. It is crucial that he be thoroughly questioned about whether or not he can see this legislation through to meet its explicitly intended purpose. If he cannot, the Senate must conclude that he is simply not fit for the job.
As long as asbestos remains legal in the United States, lives are placed in jeopardy — from the American workers tasked with handling asbestos to the families who live near the chlor-alkali plants that use asbestos to the miners in developing nations who put their lives on the line to ensure the demand for this toxin is met. Since the 1989 asbestos ban was overturned, an estimated quarter of a million Americans have lost their lives to asbestos diseases and countless more were exposed to asbestos in their homes, workplaces, and schools.
When it comes to asbestos, the true cost of lies, propaganda, and junk science can be measured in lives lost. While elections have consequences that we may not all like, together we must ensure that fake news and junk science play no role in the new administration’s decisions that impact our families’ lives and safety.