GOP, Harvard, EPA Grapple Over Landmark Health Study

Republicans see a window to undermine the Obama administration’s last, best argument for green regulations.

FILE - This Jan. 4, 2013, file photo, shows the haze from an inversion hanging over downtown Salt Lake City. The geography that makes Utah one of the world’s most beautiful places also brings the nation’s dirtiest air in winter, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time. A group of doctors is declaring a health emergency over northern Utah's lingering pollution problem. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment planned to deliver a petition Wednesday demanding immediate action by elected officials. The group wants Gov. Gary Herbert and mayors of northern Utah cities to cut the pollution. 
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Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing after en­vir­on­ment­al groups’ last, best line of de­fense.

The en­vir­on­ment­al lobby has long lever­aged three main ar­gu­ments in its fight for clean-air policies: cli­mate sci­ence, jobs, and pub­lic health. But ever since Pres­id­ent Obama took of­fice, Re­pub­lic­ans have made strong in­roads against the first two ar­gu­ments, turn­ing the once sol­id talk­ing points in­to ques­tion marks among mod­er­ates and out­right li­ab­il­it­ies among con­ser­vat­ives.

The con­nec­tion between glob­al warm­ing and hu­man activ­ity is settled sci­ence among cli­ma­to­lo­gists, but the pub­lic at large sees the is­sue very dif­fer­ently. Only 42 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve in hu­man-caused glob­al warm­ing, down from 47 per­cent in 2008, ac­cord­ing to a long-stand­ing Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll. And “green jobs” have be­come a fa­vor­ite top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion for Re­pub­lic­ans, who have been re­lent­less in their ef­forts to pub­li­cize the fail­ure of Solyn­dra, the sol­ar-pan­el com­pany that went bank­rupt des­pite re­ceiv­ing more than $500 mil­lion in fed­er­al loan guar­an­tees.

But while cli­mate sci­ence and green jobs have be­come politi­cized, can­cer and asthma have not, and the pub­lic health be­ne­fits of en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions re­main the green lobby’s most per­suas­ive ar­gu­ment.

Re­pub­lic­ans are now work­ing on a plan to un­der­mine even that. As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion con­siders new clean-air reg­u­la­tions for coal-fired power plants and oth­er pol­luters, GOP law­makers on the Hill are at­tack­ing the fun­da­ment­al sci­ence the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency says proves that curb­ing emis­sions pro­tects the pub­lic from harm.

As first re­por­ted in The Bo­ston Globe, the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee last month hit the ad­min­is­tra­tion with a sub­poena, de­mand­ing that it re­lease more in­form­a­tion about a land­mark 20-year-old pub­lic-health study by Har­vard Uni­versity that has provided the em­pir­ic­al back­bone for a host of clean-air reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing the rules now in the works.

Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is over­stat­ing the pub­lic-health be­ne­fits of the reg­u­la­tions, and — be­cause the raw data back­ing the Har­vard study have nev­er been fully re­leased — they are ac­cus­ing EPA of us­ing “secret sci­ence” to provide cov­er for its ex­pec­ted re­stric­tions on power plants. “Our view is that if the [ad­min­is­tra­tion] is us­ing the data to jus­ti­fy its reg­u­la­tions, then it … should have ac­cess to that in­form­a­tion and be able to provide it to Con­gress,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Re­pub­lic­an and the chair­man of the Sci­ence pan­el.

In aim­ing at EPA, however, these GOP mem­bers have put them­selves on a col­li­sion course with Har­vard. The ad­min­is­tra­tion says the uni­versity — and the uni­versity alone — has own­er­ship of the raw data that re­search­ers used for the study. And thus far, Har­vard is show­ing no signs of sur­ren­der­ing the data. In fact, it says it is leg­ally banned from do­ing so.

The study in ques­tion tracked the health of more than 8,000 par­ti­cipants in six cit­ies for 15 years, com­pared their health with in­form­a­tion about loc­al air qual­ity, and con­cluded that par­tic­u­late pol­lu­tion poses a ser­i­ous threat to hu­man health. The Har­vard sci­ent­ists also re­lied on gov­ern­ment death data­bases, and to get ac­cess to those data­bases, they signed bind­ing agree­ments not to pub­lish the data in any form that would al­low in­di­vidu­als to be iden­ti­fied. Vi­ol­at­ing those agree­ments would not only be il­leg­al, the uni­versity ar­gues, it would also make in­di­vidu­als less likely to vo­lun­teer for health stud­ies in the fu­ture.

Al­though the data have nev­er been made pub­lic, Har­vard in­sists the re­search has been sub­ject to more than enough scru­tiny to con­firm its in­teg­rity. The study’s design was sub­ject to an in­tern­al uni­versity re­view board be­fore it was al­lowed to go for­ward, and after the re­search was con­duc­ted, the res­ults were peer-re­viewed be­fore be­ing pub­lished in a top-tier sci­entif­ic journ­al. Since pub­lic­a­tion, the study’s design has been du­plic­ated sev­er­al times by oth­er re­search­ers, with each it­er­a­tion sup­port­ing the cent­ral con­clu­sion.

Those facts carry little weight with Smith, who said the meth­ods needed to ob­scure in­di­vidu­al iden­tit­ies are read­ily avail­able. At least for now, however, the pri­vacy ar­gu­ment has been strong enough to keep the data con­fid­en­tial. But even if Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents nev­er see the data they’re de­mand­ing, they may still be able to weak­en the pub­lic’s be­lief in a link between new en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions and pub­lic health. It’s worked be­fore.

Amer­ic­ans’ be­lief in hu­man-made glob­al warm­ing fell most sharply fol­low­ing “Cli­mateg­ate,” the mass hack­ing of sci­ent­ists’ e-mails that crit­ics in­sist re­vealed a con­spir­acy to sell the pub­lic on un­sound sci­ence. The scan­dal is best re­membered for an e-mail in which sci­ent­ists dis­cussed “hid­ing the de­cline.” But, con­trary to wide­spread pop­u­lar be­lief, that quote did not refer to a de­cline in glob­al tem­per­at­ures. And al­though the epis­ode caused plenty of em­bar­rass­ment for the hacked sci­ent­ists, the e-mails failed to pro­duce con­crete evid­ence of ef­forts to falsi­fy cli­mate sci­ence.

On the green-jobs front, Re­pub­lic­ans suc­ceeded in mak­ing Solyn­dra the best-known ex­ample, but it’s hardly the most rep­res­ent­at­ive. The loan-guar­an­tee money floated to Solyn­dra was part of a $34 bil­lion En­ergy De­part­ment loan port­fo­lio. And of that $34 bil­lion, only about 2 per­cent has been lost; the oth­er 98 per­cent has either been re­paid or is on track to­ward re­pay­ment.

For now, House Re­pub­lic­ans, EPA, and Har­vard ap­pear at a stale­mate. Smith is de­mand­ing that EPA re­lease the raw data by Sept. 30. The agency ap­pears un­likely to budge from its po­s­i­tion that only Har­vard can de­cide if the in­form­a­tion should be made pub­lic. As for sidestep­ping the ex­ec­ut­ive branch and go­ing after Har­vard, Smith hasn’t made any moves yet, but he isn’t rul­ing it out. “All op­tions,” a Sci­ence Com­mit­tee aide said, “are on the table.”

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