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Trump administration limits science EPA can use

Move impacts studies that underlie regulations of chemicals and pollution

by Cheryl Hogue
January 6, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 2


Photo shows EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency
Emphasizing studies based on publicly-available data will make rulemaking more transparent, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says.

The Trump administration is altering how the Environmental Protection Agency weighs science that underpins restrictions on commercial chemicals and limits on pollution.

“This rule will enable the exclusion of highly relevant scientific evidence from the policymaking process,” American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Sudip Parikh says in a statement.

Possible effects of excluding such evidence would be that “EPA might eschew adopting a new standard” says James M. McElfish Jr., a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute. “Or it might adopt a weaker standard.“

The regulation, which took effect Jan. 6, pertains to scientific studies that link doses of a substance to adverse health effects. It requires the EPA to give greater weight to studies that have underlying data available for review. This means the data either are public or are made available to reviewers “in a manner sufficient for independent validation,” the regulation says.

“What this new rule will do, undoubtedly, is provide the transparency needed to allow the public the opportunity to check our work,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said Jan. 5 when announcing its completion.

Many in industry back the new regulation, including US chemical manufacturers’ main trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

This rule will enable the exclusion of highly relevant scientific evidence from the policymaking process.
Sudip Parikh, CEO, American Association for the Advancement of Science

“It will strengthen EPA’s regulatory process by helping ensure that it is relying on the best available science—science that is reliable and unbiased,” ACC spokesperson Jon Corley says. It will also bolster the agency’s efforts on regulation “by making the underlying research and data publicly available in ways that protect personal privacy, confidential business information, proprietary interests, and intellectual property rights,” Corley says.

The new regulation is a toned-down version of a controversial 2018 proposal from former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt’s plan would have prohibited the agency from using any studies based on confidential data. Air pollution regulations, for example, frequently rely on epidemiology studies underpinned by health records that are protected for patient privacy. Some Republicans saw Pruitt’s proposal as a route to relax air pollution regulations that they dislike.

Officials of the Biden-Harris administration will be legally bound by the regulation, making it a “lasting and significant challenge for the incoming administration,” says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is calling for changes to the regulation. “We look forward to working with the Biden administration and the 117th Congress to ensure that this rule is modified and all relevant scientific information is weighed in decision making,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, ACS vice president for external affairs and communications. He pointed out that as the Trump EPA fashioned the regulation, ACS and other scientific organizations suggested modifications to address deep concerns with it. But the agency did not incorporate them. (ACS publishes C&EN.)

It will strengthen EPA’s regulatory process by helping ensure that it is relying on the best available science—science that is reliable and unbiased.
Jon Corley, spokesperson, American Chemistry Council

Meanwhile, the regulation creates new legal opportunities for court challenges to future EPA regulations. It also allows the politically appointed EPA administrator to grant, under certain circumstances, exemptions to the requirements.

The changes apply only to what the regulation defines as “pivotal science”—dose-response studies or analyses that lead to EPA quantitative analyses, regulatory requirements, or both. This definition also applies to scientific information that has “a clear and substantial impact on important public policies or private sector decisions,” such as the agency’s computer models of pollution exposure.


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