Researchers Argue Proposed EPA Changes Could Cause 80,000 More Deaths a Decade

Source: By Eric Roston. Bloomberg • Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2018

Harvard social scientists have published controversial back-of-the-envelope estimates of the possible toll from air and other pollutants.

Two Harvard social scientists, writing an opinion column in a prominent medical journal, have put forward “an extremely conservative estimate” that some 80,000 more Americans could die each decade if proposed changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are implemented. The essay, which was not a formal peer-reviewed study, has only added to the debate about how the agency utilizes scientific research.

David Cutler, a public-health economist, and Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician, looked at eight EPA policy actions that have been proposed or are in process—including rollbacks of Obama-era clean air, water and chemical rules—and tallied up the possible health impacts. “A central feature of [Trump’s] agenda is environmental damage: making the air dirtier and exposing people to more toxic chemicals. The beneficiaries, in contrast, will be a relatively few well-connected companies,” they wrote.

The essay appears as a “JAMA Forum” feature of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which allows researchers to offer individual perspectives on health and policy.

The EPA dismissed the essay as rhetoric, not research, in a statement provided to Bloomberg News.

“This is not a scientific article, it’s a political article. The science is clear, under President Trump greenhouse gas emissions are down, Superfund sites are being cleaned up at a higher rate than under President Obama, and the federal government is investing more money to improve water infrastructure than ever before,” the EPA said.

The agency did not respond to questions asking for additional supporting context for these assertions. In April, the EPA released data showing a decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from the previous years. The data ended in 2016, before the start of the current administration.

Cutler defended the commentary, pointing out that the estimates are based on the EPA’s own science, as presented in regulatory impact analyses. “If they don’t like what their scientists say, they should provide scientific reasons for thinking so,” he said.

That the essay is a commentary and not a peer-reviewed study makes it an easy mark for critics at a time when scientific rigor is a serious policy debate.

The essay “presents highly speculative estimates of health impacts that reflect guess-work and assumptions of unknown validity, not facts implied by available data,” according to Tony Cox, president of a Denver-based applied research firm that specializes in health, safety and environmental risks. Similar fears led to emission-reduction policies in Ireland, that, a decade later, provided no significant reductions in death rates, he said.

Cox, who was appointed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to sit on the agency’s Science Advisory Board and to chair the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, emphasized that he was speaking not for the agency, but on his own behalf.

C. Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University economist who has worked on some of the most influential air-pollution studies of the last 25 years, called the essay excellent and vouched for both “extremely knowledgeable” authors. He has collaborated with Dominici in the past, who he said “has a healthy understanding of the complexities” of making scientific data sets as transparent as possible.