EPA advisory boards bring new perspective

President Donald Trump’s appointed Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, has made some interesting choices for advisory boards, “experts” whose views on the environment have been challenged in the scientific community, The Hill reports.

People who serve in this capacity have no decision-making authority, per se, but Mr Pruitt and Mr Trump can be expected to call on them to interpret scientific research that the government could use to make regulations or other decisions at the EPA.

“To ensure that EPA is receiving the best independent scientific advice, I am appointing highly-qualified experts and scientists to these important committees,” The Hill quoted Mr Pruitt as saying in a statement accompanying the lists of appointments.

One of those appointments, in particular, is troubling to me: Robert Phalen of the University of California, Irvine, is a new science board member, The Hill reported: “He has argued that current air quality in the United States is too clean for ‘optimum health.'”

Back in 2001, Mr Phalen was also heavily involved in pollution research. “I could take laundry detergent, put it on wrists, rinse it off, and you’d have inflammation,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “But if epidemiologists found deaths indoors on days that were hot, where people closed their windows and doors, does that mean the detergent is killing them?”

In other words, just because people take steps to protect themselves from something doesn’t mean it causes harm, so we should be skeptical about attributing causation where people might be taking those steps to protect themselves from something else entirely. And that is true. But back then, the EPA had dozens of studies generally concluding that more than 50,000 people die prematurely each year because of illnesses caused by exposure to soot in the air.

I’m a fan of skeptics, especially where science is concerned, but the fact that all these people in China walk around with surgical masks on their faces also means something. They wear the masks to keep particulate matter out of their lungs, but Mr Phalen’s argument, if applied to the masks in China, would tell us that it’s not necessarily the pollution they’re trying to protect themselves from. This debate was over long ago!

And kids wear the masks, too. I have often said on these pages that 8-year-olds’ opinions and judgments are often more reliable, or at least less jaded, than those of adults. Listen to the kids of China, Mr Pruitt, Mr Phalen, and Mr Trump.

Hat tip to Annice Brave, an English teacher at Alton Senior High School and a past Illinois Teacher of the Year, for tweeting about Mr Phalen’s appointment. Other “experts” on the boards include executives at oil and gas companies and the vice president at the North Dakota Petroleum Council. At least we know where everybody stands on key environmental issues. #ProtectEPA.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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