As a physician, my first duty is to safeguard my patients’ health. That’s why I am very concerned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is crafting a rule that would effectively bar the use of some of the nation’s most robust scientific and medical research in writing EPA policy – and I plan to tell the agency that before its public comment period ends April 17.
The EPA has just released a supplemental notice to its misnamed draft rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” now open for public comment. This proposal would require scientists to disclose their underlying data – which could include personal identifiers such as patients’ names, dates of birth, addresses and other information that could be traced back to individual study subjects – before the EPA could consider a study’s conclusions. However, because privacy law requires that such information be kept confidential, studies containing this information could be ignored or undervalued during consideration of EPA policy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Oppenheim, M.D., Ph.D., of Falmouth is a member and past president of the Maine chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
For example, a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found a significantly increased risk of acute asthma attacks in people living near fracking operations. This study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on the analysis of approximately 35,000 medical records.
This is just the sort of study the EPA should use in developing its health-protective regulations. Yet, should the proposed rule be adopted, this study could be disallowed because those 35,000 medical records cannot easily or effectively be stripped of personal identifiers. This move would significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use in writing public health standards, and it would undermine the scientific basis for government policymaking. The risk here is that in the absence of strong science, policy decisions would be based on inadequate or poorly performed studies at best and on pure political bias at worst.
The EPA historically has drawn on medical and scientific studies to accurately assess the threats to health posed by pollutants in the air, water and soil and to relate exposure levels of toxins and pollutants to actual health outcomes in real human beings. This requires amassing large databases, often, for example, from hospital records. Because these records include personal information, the disclosure of which would violate privacy and confidentiality laws, some of the nation’s best scientific health studies could be barred from consideration in formulating pollution standards and other environmental protections. This would be a huge mistake and could greatly hamper our ability to understand the impacts of serious, even deadly, environmental pollutants. A cynical observer might even conclude that is precisely the intent of this proposed rule.
Another example of a large study potentially censored by this proposed rule is the Harvard School of Public Health’s landmark “Six Cities” study. This study examined the health effects of air pollution on more than 22,000 individuals in six U.S. cities. The study showed a strong statistical link between air pollution and the risk of early death and led to stronger pollution standards on fine particulate matter by the EPA. The aggregate statistical results proved the study’s findings unequivocally. Under the EPA’s proposed rule, this study would likely be disallowed in future rulemaking and we could find ourselves breathing highly polluted air in our major cities.
Here in Maine, we value both our privacy and our health. My patients rely on me and my medical colleagues to protect both.
The EPA appears to be attempting to turn its back on studies that enable its core mission: to safeguard environmental health and protect American communities from harm. This amounts to direct censorship of science. Excluding well-crafted, peer-reviewed research findings would weaken the scientific record and undercut the accuracy and the strength of EPA’s regulatory process.
For the sake of my patients, for all Mainers and for families across the country, I strongly oppose this new rule and urge others to join me in speaking out against it. Between now and April 17, please take a few minutes to submit a public comment to the EPA (Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OA-2018-0259-9322) on this misguided proposal.
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This content was originally published here.