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The Government's Latest Hearing on the EPA's Science Transparency Rule Bolstered Outsider Scientists' Opinions

Two of the three invited scientists agreed with the rule, even though other evidence suggests most scientists are against it.
The Environmental Protection Agency's logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The government held yet another hearing Wednesday, about a proposed rule regarding the Environmental Protection Agency's use of science. Called the "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" rule, it's been hotly debated since the EPA proposed it. Proponents say it helps to make public information that should be freely available to Americans. Opponents say it's an attempt to keep the EPA from regulating dangerous chemicals, disguised as concern for scientific integrity. Outcry over the rule forced the EPA to extend its deadline for the public to submit comments and to hold a public hearing in July.

Now the public comment period is long over, although the EPA has not yet said if it will formally adopt the rule. Wednesday's hearing, held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, simply rehashed arguments we've seen before. There were a couple of twists, however.

First, the senators called before them three scientists as witnesses, two of whom supported the rule. The balance of voices on the panel made it seem as if many scientists are in favor of the rule, but other evidence suggests most are likely against it. In July, 69 science and health organizations—including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world's largest—signed onto a statement opposing the rule. "These efforts are misguided and will not improve the quality of science used by EPA nor allow the agency to fulfill its mandate of protecting human health and the environment," the statement says. During the two-plus hours I attended of a hearing that same month, several individual scientists, employed at universities, stepped up to state their opposition. The only supporters I saw were representatives of groups for industries regulated by the EPA.

Second, one of the scientist-witnesses was University of Massachusetts–Amherst toxicologist Edward Calabrese, who is known for his belief that low doses of radiation may be good for people's health. Large health-research groups have concluded that it's best to assume even low doses of radiation very slightly increase people's risks for related health problems, such as cancer, and that no other models better explain existing studies than this assumption.

Calabrese's involvement with the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule has caused some hubbub. In a story published Tuesday, the Associated Press questioned whether the EPA intended to stop assuming that low doses of radiation may harm people, based on the agency quoting Calabrese in a news release in April and on language in its rule proposal that questions the validity of the mathematical model commonly used to calculate the risks of radiation and other toxins. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Calabrese said someone within the EPA had sent him a draft of the rule before publishing it. He made some comments about the commonly used radiation model, which is called the linear non-threshold model and which Calabrese thinks is "based on fraudulent science and ideology." "I'd have to say I submitted probably a paragraph to them in writing. They probably took a sentence or two," he said. "I was happy to see that my comment had some sort of influence."

In a statement to the Associated Press, an EPA spokesman said the agency was not planning to stop considering low doses of radiation dangerous and would not change that stance, even if the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule went into effect.