Science Adviser Casts Doubt

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T’s science adviser casts doubt on links between pollution and health problems
Comments by science review board chairman add weight to fears that T’s administration is aiming to discredit research to justify scrapping regulations
Emily Holden in Washington
Fri 14 Dec 2018 06.00 EST Last modified on Fri 14 Dec 2018 11.53 EST

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Emissions rise from the Northern Indiana Public Service Co’s Bailly generating station in Chesterton. The T’s administration is working to roll back rules for power plants and cars.
Emissions rise from the Northern Indiana Public Service Co’s Bailly generating station in Chesterton. The T’s administration is working to roll back rules for power plants and cars. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A conservative science adviser to the T’s administration is casting doubt on longstanding research linking fossil fuel pollution to early deaths and health problems, worrying environmental experts.

At a meeting to review air pollution science compiled by staffers at the Environmental Protection Agency this week the advisory board chairman, Tony Cox – a consultant and statistician who has worked for the industry and criticized EPA standards – questioned whether soot from coal plants and cars can be directly blamed for asthma and cardiopulmonary problems.

Cox pushed staffers to specify what percentage of health problems are directly caused by the pollution or are just associated with it, a figure that the US government has not required in order to restrict pollutants that are known to harm people.

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His comments appeared to confirm the fears of scientists who say the US government is now aiming to discredit research to bolster rollbacks of climate change and health regulations. The T’s administration is working to rescind rules for power plants, cars and oil and gas drillers.

“It’s really all a facade at this point,” said Christopher Frey, a scientist and professor at North Carolina State University who was chairman of the committee under the Obama administration from 2012 to 2015. “Almost everything that could have been changed to weaken the process has been changed, including how members have been appointed and the timeline.”

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The EPA’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has appointed representatives from state-level agencies and industry to the science review committee, called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. EPA political leaders also disbanded two panels of experts on soot and smog.

EPA leaders have said the changes are meant to provide more balance in the advisory groups and to ensure regulations are not overly burdensome. The agency is also moving to restrict what kind of science it can consider in writing regulations for industry, excluding studies that cannot share the health information of participants or be reproduced.

The advisory committee was meeting as part of a regular review of the science behind clean air standards.

The process for updating air standards would normally take about three years, Frey said, but the EPA wants to shorten that to one year. Where there were 42 experts examining the science on air pollution and specifically on particulate pollution and smog, there are now seven, he noted.

A group of former members of the panel focused on soot wrote a 134-page letter to Cox this week documenting their many concerns that his committee does not have the expertise or time to adequately assess the science.

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