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New EPA advisor believes air is “a little too clean for optimum health”

Unfortunately, it seems like this administration is hellbent on making the EPA an anti-scientific, destructive organization. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has replaced 22 members of the Science Advisory Board with industry reps and members of state regulatory agencies. Actually, to be fair, one of them is technically a scientist. The one academic member, Robert Phallen, is mostly known for his statement that “modern air is a little too clean for optimal health.”

Yes, pump some more of that sweet air pollution, it’s good for you…

Against science, against common sense

To say that things are going a bit crazy at the Environmental Protection Agency would be an understatement. Instead of applying science-based policies and regulating what corporations are and aren’t allowed to do, the EPA has completely turned against its purpose. The organization’s leadership stands against the scientific consensus on climate change, they want to end clean water regulations, and they have all but turned into a lobby group for fossil fuel companies. To cement the ungodly transition, EPA chief Scott Pruitt has, to the best of his abilities, removed scientists from advisory panels. Instead, new advisers hail from companies such as Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, and the French petroleum company Total.

But without a doubt, the cherry on top of the dark pie is Robert Phallen. Phallen has a bizarre understanding of what air pollution does to human health. Back in 2012, speaking to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences  (AAAS), he said that children need to breathe a bit more pollution, as this would somehow teach their bodies how to handle it. Plainly put, he said:

“Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.”

Needless to say, this completely goes against what decades of research have found. A recent study concluded that one in six deaths worldwide could be linked to environmental pollution, while in 2015 researchers wrote that air pollution kills 3.3 million people every year. Pollution stemming from automobile traffic has also been shown to have a negative impact on children’s cognitive growth.

The good thing, for him at least, is that he’ll fit right in with the new EPA crowd.

Neutrality is long gone

But for the rest of us, there’s nothing good about any of this. It’s unprecedented for the EPA to replace its advisory boards with industry reps. While these boards have no direct decisional power, they do a great deal to influence the direction the EPA will take and right now, it seems they want to focus on repealing current environmental laws instead of drawing up new ones.

“I have never seen anyone go after these boards. They’ve always kind of been off-limits,” Kyla Bennett, who worked as the head of wetlands enforcement in EPA’s Northeast region for 10 years and now runs Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental watchdog group, told VICE.

Image credits: Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States.

Pruitt has also banned any scientists receiving grants from the EPA from serving on these boards, which is counterintuitive, to say the least. Here’s why this is so problematic: it completely gives up on neutrality. In scientific advisory groups, you want neutral voices. You want independent scientists presenting their findings. It’s understandable that you want a perspective from the industry, but having only a perspective from the industry gives up on any chance of neutrality and objectivity. EPA grantees are traditionally a group who carries out research that the industry isn’t interested in funding — often, because it would damage its own image.

“The board has always assumed that academicians who have to get money from some source have to get money from the federal government because no industry would be interested in funding them,” Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, told VICE News. She left her post as the director of science and technology in the EPA’s water office in August.

“They wanted a totally neutral, objective look at just the scientific issues that were brought before the board,” Southerland added. “It’s not supposed to be a groupthink.”

There’s also a massive conflict of interest the new boards present.

“Pruitt is turning the idea of ‘conflict of interest’ on its head,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Centre for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “He claims federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board but industry funding shouldn’t.”

He added: “The consequences of these decisions aren’t just bad for a few scientists. This could mean that there’s no independent voice ensuring that EPA follows the science on everything from drinking water pollution to atmospheric chemical exposure.”

 The bottom line

There’s a term for what’s going on with the EPA: it’s called regulatory capture. As Wikipedia explains regulatory capture is “a form of government failure that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.”

There can be no doubt that the EPA will, under the current administration, focus on promoting the interests of certain corporations and interests groups. Even more, they are doing everything they can to silence real scientists. It’s not clear what will happen to the agency and how big of a negative their actions will have, but it seems very likely that, given the size of the US economy and industry, its shadow will be cast way beyond the borders of the US.

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