The Terrible Thing about EPA’s Restricted Science Rule that We Aren’t Talking About

November 15, 2019
Anita Desikan
Research Analyst

Alarmingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is attempting to choke off the science that can be considered in the policymaking process in a way that will almost certainly hamper the efforts to monitor and protect people from environmental health hazards throughout the US, but especially in underserved communities. The EPA is about to release a new supplement to its restricted science rule, which will pose incredible harm to the science used throughout the agency and could result in endless analyses at the EPA that stop science-based decisionmaking in its tracks. When science is sidelined, the people that are most affected are those that come from communities that had been marginalized for decades, that is, Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. And one way that marginalized communities will face the brunt of the burdens is from the rule’s chilling effects on how we regulate harmful chemicals.

Hampering the science behind evaluating chemical safety

The EPA has traditionally used a meticulous process to determine whether a chemical can cause harm to human health. Every step of the process is rigorous, thorough, and painstaking—from deciding the best type of data that can be used, to estimating a level of concern for the chemical. But allow me to focus on one particular aspect: modeling. Scientists are very careful when they choose an appropriate model that best fits the available data, and these models provide important information on the likelihood of people experiencing a harmful health effect at differing doses. Called dose-response models, these are powerful tools that the EPA uses to set policies to determine how much of a chemical in the environment will prove harmful to people.

However, the restricted science rule will disrupt this process to a level that can only be called absurd. Instead of scientists using the best available science to figure out which is the most appropriate dose-response model, the scientists are forbidden from referencing the scientific literature (unless they reference papers that have published their raw data, which itself may be an unethical step under informed consent agreements). But it is worse than that. Under the guise of transparency, the EPA is forcing the consideration of non-linear models, such as J-shaped or U-shaped curves, which would show that certain low doses do not cause harm to human health, or are even beneficial.

Here’s why that is problematic. It is beyond disturbing that politicians are intruding into the ways that scientists should analyze chemical data. EPA scientists, of course, already look at model uncertainty and consider the appropriateness of using different kinds of models. It should be noted these models are highly suitable for examining certain types of data, they can’t be force fit. I’m suddenly reminded of that scene from Star Wars (Episode IV) where Obi-Wan uses the Force on the Stormtroopers and, with a wave of his hand, declares, “These are not the droids you are looking for.” The EPA is essentially doing that to its own scientists, “These are not the scientific models you are looking for,” by suggesting that the scientists ignore the reality of the data in front of them and use the models that are far more likely to support politically-motivated positions. Without objective data analyses to determine the safety of chemicals, the health of Americans across the nation will be compromised.

Causing inevitable harm to underserved communities

This rule is bound to be extraordinarily harmful to marginalized communities. There is overwhelming evidence that low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color are more likely to live at the fenceline of industrial and resource-extracting facilities, facilities which spew pollutants into the communities’ air, water, and soil and increase the risk of severe health problems such as asthma, cancer and premature death. And these problems are bound to get exacerbated when the science underlying health-protecting policies is compromised and skewed away from recognizing harms at low doses. Underserved communities face threats from a wide variety of pollutants and other stressors, which even at low doses can result in cumulative impacts that can magnify the health risks experienced by the communities. Therefore, the EPA’s restricted science rule poses additional dangers to disenfranchised communities by compromising the ability of scientists to use the best available science to accurately model low dose impacts.

It is clear how this rule would neglect communities when we look at chemicals like ethylene oxide (EtO). The EPA has found EtO to be an incredibly harmful cancer-causing chemical and over 100 communities are now living with EtO levels that are higher than the level that the EPA has deemed safe. Because the EPA was able to carry out a science-based assessment of the risk that communities face from EtO exposure, policy options can kick in that have the ability to alleviate this harm. Action is still needed from the government, states, and companies to protect people from EtO exposure, but if the restricted science rule is implemented, the EPA won’t be able to rely on the best available science for its internal risk assessments, likely resulting in policies that are less protective. Communities like St. James, Louisiana—which has EtO levels that can reach 765 times higher than the levels that the EPA considers safe—wouldn’t even know about the risks they face, let alone have policy mechanisms to change them. With this rule in place, fenceline communities are being left behind.

As the EPA openly admits in the draft of the proposed rule, the impacts on marginalized communities were not even a consideration during the rule-making process because the rule “does not establish an environmental health or safety standard.” However, as we argued in our public comment, this is a clear violation of Executive Order 12898, which requires the agency to assess the disproportionate environmental and human health risks borne by impacted communities (fittingly, the EPA’s page on this environmental justice executive order is currently offline—here’s an archived version). The restricted science rule would limit the EPA’s access to the epidemiological health studies that can shed light on the health impacts of environmental contaminants on marginalized communities. This action will likely exacerbate the lack of adequate safeguards to protect the communities from further harm.

Threatening everyone’s health and safety

I don’t know about you, but I am grateful that the current laws and rules that protect me and other Americans from harmful pollutants and chemicals are governed by the best available science. I want my government scientists to be pulling from every single scientific study that they can get their hands on and, through a rigorous process, use this information to ground our environmental policymaking on a firm scientific basis. But the restricted science rule threatens to derail all of this by making the way we assess chemicals less accurate. And the worst impacts will fall on the communities that have been marginalized since the founding of our nation, because this rule—this rule that originated with the tobacco industry—will sideline the science and demolish the ways that we protect people from being exposed to harmful chemicals.