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EPA Not Releasing Data for Air Pollution Regulations

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The EPA has long been criticized for its lack of transparency, and today EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was forced to admit that the data that they use to justify certain air pollution regulations cannot be released to the public. From E&E News, which is paywalled:

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) slammed the agency for using “secret science,” saying, “It appears the EPA bends the law and stretches the science to justify its own objectives.”

Particularly of concern, he said, was a recent committee subpoena of data from confidential health studies that form the backing of many of the agency’s air regulations, including cohort studies by the American Cancer Society and Harvard Six Cities.

Although EPA did provide some data from the studies in question, Smith said the response was “insufficient” and that the failure to make the data sets public shows the agency “cannot publicly verify its own claims.”

McCarthy said the information would be sufficient to show that the agency had relied on peer review but added that “if you’re looking to replicate the study, I would agree that the data is not sufficient.”

Some of the data in question are confidential and do not belong to EPA, and the agency has said it is working to separate data from personal information (E&ENews PM, Sept. 3).

This dates back to August of this year when Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) threatened, and then ultimately subpoenaed the EPA for more information:

Smith gave EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy an ultimatum in a 22 July letter, threatening a subpoena if the information—which would include personal health information from study participants promised confidentiality—wasn’t turned over by the end of the month.

On Tuesday, Johnson responded to Smith’s subpoena threat with outrage. In her letter, she claimed that his evidence for questioning the validity of the studies was shoddy and that a subpoena would violate the trust of hundreds of thousands of Americans who had participated in the Six Cities Study and other research included in the subpoena. She demanded that Smith clarify who would receive the data and for what purpose.

In his response, the chairman acknowledged that the data would need to be “de-identified” to protect the privacy and health information of the participants.

Respecting the privacy of individuals involved in the study, many who might no longer be alive, is important, especially if they were offered assurances about privacy before agreeing to participate. However, making national policy based on studies which have data that isn’t available to the public is outrageous. Gina McCarthy essentially said so herself:

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency uses “well-done and credible” science in the face of Republican criticism that it is not transparent about the scientific backing for its regulations.

“Science is the backbone of our decisionmaking, and our work is based on the principles of scientific integrity and transparency that are both expected and deserved by the American people,” McCarthy said this morning before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “I am proud of the EPA’s research efforts and the sound use of science and technology to fulfill the EPA’s mission to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment.”

How is there transparency if the data from the study is not released such that independent experts can take a look at it? Refusing to release data is the opposite of transparency. It’s not clear how to get out of this mess, but in the future data behind scientific studies used to justify expensive national policies needs to be completely accessible.

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