EPA’s “transparency” rule undermines its own mission to protect public health

The current federal administration, in the middle of a pandemic, is pursuing EPA rule changes that could undermine the Agency’s ability to protect public health. Under the guise of “science transparency,” the new rules would allow the EPA to disregard studies that provide the evidence and rationale behind critical regulation such as clean air and water laws.

The new “Science Transparency” rule, which was originally introduced in 2018 and expanded despite staggering pushback from public health experts and the EPA’s own advisors, would be a gift to polluting industries as they seek to unravel decades of health protections. To make matters worse, the EPA is further undermining public health during the pandemic by suspending enforcement of regulations like the Clean Air Act—with no end date—despite research showing a link between air pollution and COVID-19 mortality.

PRHE prepared public comments strongly opposed to both the 2018 rule and its expansion because these requirements have no scientific justification and could lead the EPA to exclude or ignore high quality studies that are vital to future decision-making. The rule does this by mandating researchers to disclose raw data such as participant medical information, data that scientists and health professionals are ethically or legally required to protect. If researchers can’t or won’t provide the data, the EPA can downgrade consideration of the study in their decision-making. This means that seminal studies like the Harvard Six Cities study that formed the evidence base for the Clean Air Act could be removed from the regulatory decision-making process.

This tactic to suppress or eliminate public health studies is straight from the tobacco industry’s playbook as revealed in a 1996 memo discovered by New York University Medical School’s George Thurston in UCSF’s Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library.

The EPA is supposed to use the “best available science,” when drafting its regulations, but this updated rule puts the Agency in direct opposition to that requirement as well as to current research methods, public health law, and to its own mission. As scientists and health professionals, we strongly value open science which includes data sharing and full reporting of methods—but this expanded rule would not improve data sharing, replicability, or transparency in decision-making. The rule also directly contrasts with EPA’s 2016 Plan to Increase Access to Results of the EPA-Funded Scientific Research that states, “Whether research data are fully available to the public or available to researchers through other means does not affect the validity of the scientific conclusions from peer-reviewed research publications.”

There are problems with not only the substance of this proposal, but also the process. The EPA has not responded, as is required, to the more than 600,000 public comments it received opposing the rule in 2018. Given the opposition, you might think the Agency would withdraw its proposal, but it did the opposite and expanded it. For example, the original rule applied only to certain types of data, but the updated version applies broadly to all environmental and health related data. In addition, the EPA is wearing down the capacity of public health professionals on the front lines of the pandemic by requesting expert feedback on business-as-usual time lines.

If the EPA gets its way and the “Science Transparency” 2.0 rule becomes law, there would be a long-term weakening of environmental regulations which would cripple public health and hinder the EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission to “protect human health and the environment.”

We, along with the University of California, strongly oppose this regulation and recommend that the EPA withdraw the proposed rule immediately.