The Trump Administration’s War on Public Health Comes for Science Informing EPA Policy Decisions

The Tennessee Valley Authority Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Photo: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are essentially two fronts in the Trump administration’s long battle to dismantle EPA protections and deregulate industry to allow increased pollution in the pursuit of short-term profit: the rolling back of specific laws that ensure access to clean air and water, and an attack on the science that informs the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy decisions.

On that second front, the White House has undermined individual targets, like the 2017 establishment of veto power over scientific studies produced by the EPA, and the recent massaging of information to suggest pollution from coal plants kills fewer Americans every year than is the case. But a new draft of an EPA proposal published Monday suggests that the Trump administration is preparing a comprehensive assault on the ability for scientists funded by the agency to suggest policy with accurate data. Under the guise of transparency, the proposal will allow the EPA to reject any academic findings unless all raw data from the study — including confidential medical records — is handed over.

As the New York Times notes, the inclusion of confidential records will severely hinder the ability of researchers to propose new clean air and water legislation, as “many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements.” The proposal would also apply retroactively, meaning that a practice that has been built into public-health research could nullify current policies built off of established studies — including findings proving that mercury discharge from power plants affects brain development, and that lead in paint dust is associated with childhood behavioral disorders.

“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” Paul Billings, a senior vice-president at the American Lung Association, told the Times. Other advocacy groups to condemn a previous draft of the proposal — which was less exacting than the current one — include the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Medical Library Association, the Association of Academic Health Science Libraries, and the National Center for Science Education, which claimed that the policy “would send a deeply misleading message, ignoring the thoughtful processes that scientists use to ensure that all relevant evidence is considered.”

Considering that the Trump and Obama administration have proved that enforcement of EPA regulations is among the executive branch’s more dominant powers, it’s strange that 2020 Democrats have yet to push Trump’s failure to ensure Americans’ access to clean air and water — concerns that are broadly supported across the political spectrum. In a recent analysis on the popularity of strong anti-pollution enforcement, New York’s Eric Levitz argued that “it would be in the Democratic Party’s interest to increase the salience of environmental issues even if Trump hadn’t spent the past two years letting Big Coal and Dow Chemical run the EPA.” Put another way, if Democrats aren’t able to leverage the popularity of environmental protections, Trump could be able to undermine the research underpinning the EPA for close to a decade.

Trump’s War on Public Health Comes for Science Informing EPA