Hiding in plain sight

By Mona Sarfaty – Originally published on June 12, 2018 in the Richmond Times.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to change the rules that dictate what evidence must be considered as the basis for protecting the public’s health. As a physician who spent a summer in Southern California during college and didn’t see Mount Wilson looming in front of me for the first week I spent there due to smog, I am incredulous. I remember well the pain in my chest when attempting to play tennis on those smoggy days.

This was in the early ’70s at a time when a Republican president was creating the EPA. Now, 50 years hence, tremendous evidence has accumulated that validates my symptoms and the negative effect that unhealthy air has on people who must breathe it. After that summer, as a practicing physician, I took care of people with asthma, chronic lung disease, and heart conditions who were at greater risk on bad air days. So it is shocking to me that Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, would propose putting aside huge amounts of thoroughly reviewed evidence leading to long-recognized causal connections between air pollution and poor health, claiming that the basis for the conclusions was “secret.”

Today, I lead a consortium of medical societies whose doctors are informing the public about the health harms of climate change. The similarities between Pruitt’s disregard of established science about the connection between carbon dioxide and global warming and his disregard of solid evidence about the impact of air pollution on health are too obvious to ignore.

Despite overlapping evidence from every country in the world and the entire U.S. climate science enterprise, a little over a year ago, referring to climate change, he stated, “We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.” He proposed public debates about climate change by opposing teams.

To all of us whose lives are dedicated to helping people get and stay healthy, there is indeed a “secret” lurking in the science of air pollution and global warming. It is not what we have long known about how burning fossil fuels creates waste products — tiny particles and gaseous fumes — that damage and inflame our lungs. This has been validated by voluminous research studies. The secret is not that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are warming our climate, exacerbating the health harms of air pollution, and causing other dangers to our health — heatwaves, wildfires, pollen production, and storms. The secret is hiding in plain sight: Fighting air pollution is the greatest public health opportunity of our time. Reducing polluting fumes and emissions from fossil fuels by accelerating the inevitable transition to clean, renewable energy will immediately improve our health and fight climate change.

When an EPA administrator’s not-so-secret agenda is to promote fossil fuels, two things must follow: (1) the fact that fossil fuels are the major contributor to both air pollution and global warming must be denied; and, (2) the research that documents this reality and how it harms our health must be attacked. It’s not challenging to see that his approach is to mislead people by wrapping these attacks in rhetoric that is alternatively scary (“secret science”) and high-minded (“transparency”).

We are told that the rationale for the new proposed “strengthening transparency standard” is that individual medical records included in the research were “secret.” In fact, like all medical records, they were confidential — and they remain so. The EPA allotted a narrow window of only 30 days for comments on the new proposed regulation when it was announced. After much objection from the medical community and its researchers, the deadline was extended to August 16.

The record shows that this same argument of “secrecy” against scientific studies has been used by polluting industries going back many years. This cynical proposal for “transparency” would undermine existing and future air pollution protections. (Water pollution protections could be affected, too.) It would be a policy of, for, and by the polluters, not the people. At this time, we also have a president who fails to recognize the role of carbon pollution in global warming and air pollution and thinks only of less regulation. A president and an EPA that fail to regulate responsibly and ignore key research studies put our health and our climate in danger.

Health providers know that facts may be scary when our health is threatened. But we also know that denying or ignoring facts blinds us to discovering and acting on the best ways to heal medical problems and protect our health. We can’t let that happen.

The EPA must live up to its charge and work to face facts and protect our environment and our health. Today, its leadership is pointing it in the opposite direction.


Mona Sarfaty is executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.