A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. A Version of This Op-Ed Was Originally Published August 15, 2018 in The Hill.
Before he was ousted amid a number of ethics investigations, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a so-called “transparency rule,” to govern the EPA’s use of health data. If enacted, this dangerous rule will eliminate vital information about the health impacts of toxic chemicals, and prevent ordinary citizens from having a voice in EPA’s scientific process. But we can stop the rule from going forward if we speak up now.
Calling this a “transparency rule” is a cruel joke on the very people EPA is charged to protect. The rule would prevent the EPA from using data from human health studies unless the participants in those studies allow full disclosure of their personal information.
Think about it: would you participate in a health study if it meant that your name and medical history were released into the public domain? The cynical architects of this rule know that most people would say “no.” That’s why medical studies routinely shield their participants’ identities. Pruitt’s real purpose is not to promote “transparency,” but to silence scientists and citizens who want to keep toxic chemicals out of our communities.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote about the deadly impact of DDT and other chemicals in “Silent Spring.” The silence she referred to resulted from the absence of songbirds that were killed in large numbers wherever DDT was applied. Carson’s work helped ban DDT, and started a national conversation about chemical risks that led to the creation of EPA.
I have seen the impact of chemical risks here in St. Louis, Michigan, where the toxic legacy of numerous chemicals, including DDT, has persisted for generations. As recently as 2014, songbirds were still dying in a residential neighborhood of St. Louis, right at the gates of the Velsicol Chemical Corporation, a major manufacturer of DDT. Years after Velsicol went bankrupt and abandoned its factory, the DDT and many other chemicals left onsite and in the adjacent neighborhood affected not just birds, but also the people who lived there.
Early removal and containment efforts at the Velsicol site failed. But today, thanks to the tenacity and conviction of the people of St. Louis, EPA is conducting a more robust cleanup of the site. Due to the valiant efforts of Alma College and the citizens of St. Louis, in 2013, researchers from Emory University came to study the continuing impacts of the contamination left behind by Velsicol. When residents learned they could advance understanding about chemicals and health, the response was swift and enthusiastic. Those citizens didn’t have to know a thing about science; they only had to subject themselves to invasive questions and the pokes and prods of medical exams.
While the study is ongoing, Emory University has already validated what the residents of St. Louis know: the damaging legacy of Velsicol lives on through them and their children. Studying and understanding toxic exposures can arm EPA with the medical data it needs to protect future generations. As a scientist, I thank everyone — including brave members of our community in St. Louis, Michigan —who has ever participated in a health study, environmental or otherwise.
If promulgated, the transparency rule will deny each and every one of those participants their voice, here and across our country. Health studies are one of the last ways the average person can make a meaningful contribution to scientific issues. It is “public comment” in its rawest, most transparent form. It’s bad enough that chemicals and corporate greed silenced birds and other creatures. The transparency rule aims to silence people living in communities across our nation that have been affected the most by chemical contamination.
St. Louis is a city that highlights what is at stake for contaminated sites across our nation. It is painful to see the EPA, an agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, seek to silence the truths that scientific and medical research can reveal. Truth and transparency were the objectives of Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and those principles have richly informed EPA’s mission. Truth and transparency underpin the science that informs regulations and protections we take for granted today. Those protections are now in jeopardy.
In the name of truth and health, we must oppose the so-called “transparency rule.” Speak now or be silenced, like the songbirds of that long-ago spring.