Eleven new members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board have a history of downplaying the health risks of secondhand smoke, air pollution and other hazards, including two who have spun science for tobacco companies, according to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Earlier this month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt fired all board members who currently receive EPA grants for their research, saying they cannot remain objective if they accept agency money. In replacing them, Pruitt transformed the board from a panel of the nation’s top environmental experts to one dominated by industry-funded scientists and state government officials who have fought federal regulations.
Pruitt removed 21 members of the advisory board, mostly academics, and replaced them with 16 experts with ties to industries regulated by the agency and two with no industry ties. Fourteen of the new members consult or work for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave Pruitt nearly $320,000 for his campaigns in Oklahoma as a state senator and attorney general.
Under the Obama administration, industry-affiliated scientists made up 40 percent of the Science Advisory Board, or 19 of its 47 members. Under President Donald Trump, 68 percent of the board, 30 of its 44 current members, now has ties to industries. That leaves 14 with no industry ties, including two Obama appointees who work for environmental groups.
The Science Advisory Board, established by Congress in 1978, helps the EPA ensure it has the best available science when crafting regulations and standards that address the nation’s drinking water, air pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems that threaten public health.
“If memberships are weighted toward viewpoints that support the agenda of the administration, then the administration is signaling that it’s not asking for advice, but for a rubber stamp,” said environmental scientist Deborah Swackhamer, who was chairwoman of the board under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“That’s a complete misuse.”
Breakdown of the EPA Science Advisory Board
Source: Analysis by Liza Gross, Lindsey Konkel and Elizabeth Grossman
Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal
A history of separating politics and science
Keeping drinking water safe. Shielding vulnerable populations from air pollutants that trigger asthma and heart attacks. Protecting communities from cancer-causing chemicals. These are the EPA’s mandates. And when making key decisions about science to follow these mandates, the agency relies on panels of advisers.
The Science Advisory Board is arguably the most important panel among 22 federal advisory committees that report to the EPA. The board gives the agency advice on specific matters, such as the impacts of fracking on drinking water supplies, factors that drive algae blooms in the Great Lakes and whether the agency’s risk assessments are scientifically sound.
The board doesn’t give guidance on proposed regulations. Rather, it vets the scientific foundations on which those recommendations are built, such as how dangerous the air pollutant ozone is at certain exposures or at what dose an industrial chemical would raise the risk of cancer.
To get the best science to policymakers, the EPA long has relied on a diversity of experts and a tradition of keeping politics out of scientific deliberations. In establishing the Science Advisory Board, Congress called for experts from academia, industry, nongovernmental organizations and federal, state and tribal governments. Most board seats over the past several decades have been held by government-funded university researchers.
But in February, Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, convened a hearing called “Making EPA Great Again” to investigate what he called the EPA’s “political agenda.” Smith, a Texas Republican who disputes climate science, said Science Advisory Board experts under Obama had “become nothing more than rubber stamps who approve all of the EPA’s regulations” because they receive millions of dollars in government grants.
Last month, Pruitt said experts who serve on the EPA’s scientific advisory boards can’t provide objective advice if they receive agency grants. He promised an audience at The Heritage Foundation, an anti-regulatory think tank that questions climate change, that he was “going to fix that” by restoring the “independence and transparency and objectivity in regard to the scientific advice we are getting at the agency” by prohibiting scientific advisers from taking EPA grants.
In a news release, Pruitt said the new makeup of the board shows the “EPA’s commitment to science and openness to expertise from a diverse array of perspectives.”
Pruitt has required advisory board members to remain “financially independent” of the EPA, but has placed no such restrictions on scientists with ties to industry.
“To say that academics have more conflicts because they get (government) grants is turning the idea of conflict of interest on its head and is patently absurd,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. “If a scientist working at a high level did not receive government funding, how would they have achieved that?”
New advisers criticize mainstream science
A Reveal investigation shows that several new board members have a history of criticizing mainstream science to cast doubt on the health risks of commercial and industrial air pollutants and products.
One new appointee, Kimberly White, is a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical manufacturers, including Dow Chemical Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and DuPont Co. The group for decades has fought EPA regulations on widely used chemicals linked to health effects, including flame retardants, formaldehyde, asbestos and plasticizers.
In an email to Reveal, White said that in the past, the EPA science board “lacked sufficient balance among its members, and they have missed out on valuable insight from important perspectives from industry.” She said her goal is to ensure that board recommendations “are objective and grounded in the highest quality and most relevant scientific evidence.”
The new appointees also include scientists who have served as expert witnesses for industries regulated by the EPA. Dr. Samuel Cohen, a cancer expert at the University of Nebraska, testified on DuPont’s behalf in a lawsuit holding the company liable for illnesses related to drinking water contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a chemical DuPont used in a West Virginia plant that made Teflon. Cohen testified that the plaintiff’s kidney cancer was caused by her obesity, not PFOA, yet an independent science panel has found a probable link between the chemical and serious health conditions, including kidney cancer.
Cohen did not respond to a request for comment.
Two of Pruitt’s new appointees helped companies defend their products or fight restrictions on secondhand smoke, and another sought more than $300,000 in tobacco industry funding but was rejected.
John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and founder of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, asked a top Philip Morris executive for $25,000 in 1991 to support his center, which he said had exposed “serious weaknesses in the federal government’s risk assessment process.”
Graham told the executive that he launched the center with gifts from several corporations, all with a financial interest in minimizing environmental regulations, including BP, Chevron Corp., Dow and Exxon. He ended his pitch by saying, “It is important for me to learn more about the risk-related challenges that you face.”
Graham got his $25,000 and later served as an adviser to The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition, a group created by Philip Morris to discredit an EPA report that identified secondhand smoke as a carcinogen.
Graham told Reveal in an email that he received larger amounts of funding from the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to run his Harvard center.
“Since I have extensive experience with both government and industry,” he said, “I look forward to providing unbiased advice to EPA.”
He also said he worked to reduce particulate pollution while head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President George W. Bush.
But Graham instituted an approach to risk analysis, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, that challenged the scientific consensus underlying regulations on ozone, fine particulate matter and formaldehyde pollution. The EPA decided not to tighten its health standard for fine particulate matter in 2006 under Graham, rejecting the recommendations of its expert panel for the first time on ambient air pollution.
Another new board member, Louis Anthony Cox, early in his career worked for consulting firm Arthur D. Little, which contributed to the industry’s discredited effort to develop a “safer” cigarette. He later testified on behalf of Philip Morris and three other tobacco giants against a smoker’s husband who sued the companies for lying about the dangers of cigarettes.
Cox received at least $22,000 for his services from tobacco industry law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon – the same firm that helped Philip Morris create “sound science” guidelines to challenge the EPA’s listing of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen and in 2016 sued the EPA on behalf of the coal industry to prevent the agency from enforcing carbon emission reductions under its recently repealed Clean Power Plan.
In addition to his membership on the Science Advisory Board, Cox has been tapped as chairman of a separate EPA board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.
Cox, who runs consulting firm Cox Associates, told Reveal in an email that he’s used models to calculate the “excess risk of lung cancers caused by different smoking exposure histories” for various private- and public-sector organizations, including Philip Morris and the EPA. That work, he said, has helped him “appreciate some of the most common errors, heuristics and biases that can affect the judgments of scientists … in interpreting data.”
In addition to his work on behalf of the tobacco industry, Cox also has questioned the benefits of reducing particulate pollution in a paper sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.
New board member Robert Phalen, who directs the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, asked the Center for Indoor Air Research – a tobacco industry body founded to counter evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer – to fund a grant of more than $311,000 to study “interactions among indoor aerosols.” Phalen submitted his proposal three times, but the group rejected his request in 1997, saying his hypothesis “seems implausible.”
The center was disbanded in 1998 after the tobacco companies agreed to stop sponsoring research as part of a landmark settlement of a federal lawsuit that charged the industry with conspiring to hide the dangers of smoking for decades.
In an email to Reveal, Phalen said he did not recall seeking any grants from the tobacco-funded group.
Phalen also has discounted some of the health effects of air pollution. In a 2004 report, he wrote that the risks of breathing particulate pollution “are very small and confounded by many factors.”
He told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, “Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.” Children’s lungs, he was quoted as saying, need to be exposed to irritants to learn how to ward them off.
But studies repeatedly have shown that children are highly susceptible to air pollution for a variety of reasons, including because they breathe more air per pound of weight, have immature immune systems and spend more time exerting themselves outdoors.
Another new board member, Stanley Young – a statistician who advises The Heartland Institute, an anti-regulatory think tank that showcases global warming deniers at its annual conference – recently has questioned evidence underlying EPA regulations on air pollutants.
Young also is an adviser to the American Council on Science and Health, which describes itself as a “pro-science consumer advocacy organization” but decades ago was funded by free-market foundations and the chemical, fossil fuel and tobacco industries and challenges evidence supporting regulations.
Young did not respond to a request for comment.
Research from around the world has reported a link between air pollutants and deaths and hospitalizations from respiratory disease and heart attacks. Young published a critique of this evidence in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, a journal known for publishing industry-friendly science.
Former board members fear ‘grave danger’
The new board members’ dismissal of well-established science about air pollutants worries former board member and Princeton University air pollution expert Denise Mauzerall, who was removed by Pruitt.
“I fear the protection of our environment is in grave danger,” she said.
Mauzerall said links between air pollutants and health effects have “been well established in the epidemiological literature now for decades. … The World Health Organization has found air pollution to be one of the largest risk factors in the world for premature mortality.”
Peter Thorne, chairman of the Science Advisory Board before Pruitt’s purge, cited the panel’s guidance to the EPA about strengthening standards for ozone and fine particulates as an example of how science protects public health.
“With that science,” he said, “we save lives, and we do it in a cost-effective way for the American people.”
Thorne is an occupational and environmental health expert at the University of Iowa College of Public Health who also was removed from the board. The EPA has funded some of his research.
“The job of the Science Advisory Board is to ensure that the EPA is using the best science in all its decision-making,” he said. “It’s an insult to fine research programs to say that those of us funded by those programs are not qualified to advise on these issues.”
Earlier this month, 10 senators – nine Democrats and an Independent – asked the head of the Government Accountability Office to review the EPA’s move to purge the board of agency-funded scientists, noting that it appears to strengthen the voice of industry-funded scientists.
Former board chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer said Pruitt’s upending of the board signals the EPA’s shift away from using scientific evidence to guide policy.
“There has always been a very strong culture of trying to make sure this committee remains objective in its role,” said Swackhamer, professor emerita at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She voiced particular concern about the appointment of Michael Honeycutt as the newest chairman. Honeycutt, director of the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, rejected evidence that the EPA’s proposal to tighten the ozone standard will yield health benefits.
“The chair of the (Science Advisory Board) has historically been a researcher from academia, as they typically pose the least chance of conflict of interest,” said Swackhamer, who still serves on a separate EPA advisory board. “This appointment doesn’t follow that pattern.”
She called Honeycutt “a bureaucrat without a strong science background, who openly rejects most of the science used in standard-setting.”
Honeycutt declined to comment.
Thomas Burke, director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute and a former science adviser and deputy assistant administrator at Obama’s EPA, said the goal in determining the makeup of the board should be an “appropriate balance of perspectives, as long as the high bar of scientific expertise is met.”
“What’s happening, unfortunately, is many polluters’ interest groups are taking a page out of the tobacco playbook, casting doubt on the science to delay decision-making,” Burke said.
By Liza Gross, Lindsey Konkel and Elizabeth Grossman. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting November 17, 2017. This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.