In April 2018, the Trump administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), proposed the use of the “transparency rule,” which states that the EPA can only consider scientific studies that include underlying data made openly available to the public for analysis. It would, therefore, limit what scientific data could be used to determine EPA regulations.
A four-month public comment period on the rule closed last month, and more than 6,000 people and organizations weighed in. It is now in the final stages of deliberation and could be adopted as early as this fall.
On the surface, the rule sounds harmless, even open-minded, doesn’t it? After all, transparency is an important principle of good science. But, the truth is, President Donald Trump and his band of climate changers have pulled a fast one. Here’s why.
Many scientific studies that are peer-reviewed and published in high quality journals use information that cannot be openly revealed. This data must remain confidential for legitimate reasons — usually because the research documents include personal, identifiable records or intellectual property that can’t and shouldn’t be made public. Because of this, important and relevant studies associated with the effects of air pollution or water quality on people’s health might be excluded from EPA regulations.
Beginning to understand the reason for the rule now?
This rule is a no-win for researchers. The Federal Medical Privacy Rule, commonly known as the “HIPAA Privacy Rule,” prevents the medical research and clinical community from disclosing the identity of their research subjects. If researchers or clinicians break these rules, they could face serious criminal charges. The minimum fine for willful violations of HIPAA rules is $50,000. The maximum criminal penalty for a HIPAA violation by an individual is $250,000. Restitution may also need to be paid to the victims. In addition to the financial penalty, a jail term is likely for a criminal violation of HIPAA rules. On the other hand, if scientists respect the privacy of their subjects and abide by the HIPAA rules, then their research cannot be used by the EPA. Catch-22.
This problem might be moot anyway, though, because, if individual subjects knew that their personal information was going to be unprotected, many would not want to participate in research studies.
In fact, the scaring-off of research participants is already happening, particularly among immigrants and those in poverty, George Thurston, an environmental medicine researcher at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times.
When the transparency rule was first proposed in April of this year, the EPA argued that it was consistent with data access requirements of the major scientific journals such as Nature and Science. This immediately caught the attention of the editors of these journals.
Within a week, these editors clarified that the proposed rule had nothing to do with their policies. And by July of this year, 69 professional and public-health organizations, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association, also denounced the proposal.
The incentive for the transparency rule started, in part, with a landmark pollution study, “Six Cities Study,” written in 1993 by authors from Harvard’s School of Public Health. The study found that mortality risk was strongly associated with fine particulate concentrations and that people lived two to three years longer in cleaner cities (lower particulate air concentration), compared to dirtier cities (higher particulate). Following this study, new standards were put in place by the EPA. This led to improvements in health, which correlated with the improvement in air quality in each of the six cities associated with the study, and even in other clean cities.
The study, however, used confidential medical information, which could not be revealed, but its data has since been shared with other research teams and replicated several times. Despite this, the new transparency rule would have prevented this study from influencing EPA regulations, and, if the newest rule is adopted, the Trump administration could try to repeal or weaken policies restricting the amount of particulate matter in the air.
By the way, particulate pollution, like the type in the Six Cities Study, has been since found to cause type 2 diabetes and is associated with elevated rates of lung cancer, asthma attacks, heart attacks and increased hospital visits.
Shortly after the Six Cities Study, members of Congress pressed for legislation requiring scientists to disclose their raw scientific data, and several times in recent years, the House of Representatives passed bills similar to the new transparency rule, but the proposals never made it out of Congress. So, this new rule is actually the resurfacing of these old bills.
With the political door opened by the transparency rule, the EPA last month proposed the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which would establish emission guidelines for states to develop plans to address greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. The EPA admits that, based on predictions associated with particulate pollution research, that the ACE could cause 1,400 more premature deaths a year, 96,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma by 2030, and up to 48,000 lost work days and 140,000 lost school days per year.
One of the EPA’s missions is to protect human health. The transparency rule, and other contrary regulations, such as the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, actually prevent the EPA from fulfilling this mission.
The only thing that is transparent to me is that the Trump administration is again determined to ignore science in favor of the big business of oil and coal.
A.J. Russo (Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident of Mount Airy and a visiting assistant professor of biology at Drew University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Drew University.