As Progress on Improving Air Quality Slows, EPA Gives Industry a Boost
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was dealt a blow in his quest to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations when a federal court in March ordered his agency to implement stricter standards for ozone — the main component of smog — that were set in 2015.
While Pruitt, who has built a reputation for getting things done, has similarly been blocked in many of his intended deregulatory actions, he overruled his agency’s staff on Tuesday in exempting much of southeastern Wisconsin from having to meet the stricter rules.
The decision constitutes a win for both Pruitt and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is centering his re-election campaign this year on the successful courting of Foxconn, the Taiwanese corporation responsible for manufacturing electronics for companies including Apple, Sony, and Nintendo.
Bypassing the smog rules would keep the company from having to take costly pollution-abatement measures at its planned $10 billion plant just north of the Illinois border, in one of the state’s most polluted areas. Factories like Foxconn are a major source of the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that react in the presence of sunlight to form ozone, elevated levels of which can lead to coughing and breathing difficulties, and can aggravate chronic respiratory conditions.
Pruitt’s moves come just one day after a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, found that air quality improvement has stagnated across the nation during the last decade.
Using satellites and on-the-ground measurements, researchers found that while levels of nitrogen oxides fell 7 percent from 2005 to 2009, that drop trickled to just 1.7 percent from 2011 to 2015. The study authors attributed the slowdown in part to the increased relative contribution of pollution from industrial sources. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, state records show that emissions from the Foxconn plant “would rank among the highest in southeastern Wisconsin for pollutants that create smog.”
Also in the news:
• The editor of the journal in which that study was published — considered one of the world’s most prestigious — officially resigned on Thursday, one week after multiple women leveled charges of sexual harassment against him in a report published by Science magazine. Accusations of misconduct have dogged the PNAS editor and prominent geneticist, Inder Verma, since at least last summer, when, in a separate action, three female researchers filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, where Verma has been employed as a professor since 1974. In December, Verma was put on leave from PNAS, a position he had held since 2011, in response to the lawsuit. The Salk Institute suspended Verma late last month, as new questions related to the looming Science magazine exposé began to surface. In a statement issued through his lawyer earlier this week, Verma said, “I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others.” (Science)
• The Trump administration is considering restricting access to the United States for Chinese citizens, along with banning them from performing certain types of research at universities and institutions across the country. The proposed moves, the details of which are unclear, are driven by fears that sensitive information regarding software, microchips, and other technologies could be gathered and relayed back to China. While the White House has said the measures are necessary to combat threats to national security, the implications could be dire for companies like Apple, IBM, and General Electric, which all work closely with China on production and trade. (New York Times)
• Through a carefully targeted campaign, the tobacco industry managed to dramatically reduce the United Nations Children’s Fund efforts to reduce childhood smoking, even persuading the agency to work with tobacco interests between 2003 and 2016, according to a report published this week. “UNICEF allowed itself to be manipulated by the tobacco industry,” said researcher Stella Bialous, of the University of California-San Francisco’s nursing school. Bialous and her colleagues at UCSF published their findings in the journal Pediatrics on Monday. The industry strategy and the agency response were gleaned from the university’s Truth Tobacco documents library, an online collection of previously secret tobacco industry documents, and from a web search of news archives. The results showed a pattern of tobacco money being directed to UNICEF and shifted away from the agency’s once aggressive campaign against childhood smoking. The authors appealed to UNICEF to stop working with tobacco companies. (American Academy of Pediatrics journal blog).
• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of infections transmitted by mosquito, tick, and flea bites have more than tripled in the United States between 2004 and 2016. Nine new vector-borne diseases have also been discovered or introduced, and cases of Lyme disease have nearly doubled. The U.S. isn’t the only country seeing such a surge; in Canada, reported cases have increased more than sixfold between 2009 and 2016, and in Britain, tick diseases are expanding as summers lengthen. Some scientists, including Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases and the author of the new study, believes that rising temperatures are part of the reason. “If you increase temperatures in general, tick populations move further north,” he told CBS News, affecting both migration patterns and the length of tick season. A separate report from 2017 warned that warming is also expected to speed up mosquito biting rates and cut down on the time required for an infected mosquito to transmit West Nile virus. (New York Times, CBS News)
• This week, the CDC announced that it will reduce the salary of its new director, Robert Redfield, after Senator Patty Murray of Washington publicly questioned why he was receiving $150,000 more than any previous director. In announcing the pay cut, the Department of Health and Human Services stated that Redfield “does not wish to have his compensation become a distraction for the important work of the CDC.” Meanwhile, the major pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer this week approved a 61 percent compensation increase for its CEO, Ian Read, to keep him from retiring. In 2016, Read’s compensation package, which included salary, a bonus, equity awards, and stocks, totaled $17.3 million. The increase comes at a time when Pfizer has posted price hikes on dozens of drugs. (Fortune, Ars Technica)
• And finally: The National Institutes of Health is recruiting volunteers for what it hopes will be one of the most ambitious research projects ever: gathering personal health data on 1 million Americans. With such a vast database, officials hope they can advance “precision medicine” — prevention and treatment strategies that take into account genetic, environmental, and lifestyle differences among individuals and ethnic groups, in contrast to the “one size fits all” approach that characterizes much of medicine. The recruitment effort, called All of Us, will be launched on Sunday with seven events around the country. But there are concerns about privacy. Although the NIH says it has taken rigorous measures to make sure no confidential information will leak out (including inviting hackers to try to penetrate a test database), some experts doubt that any collection of data can be completely shielded from prying eyes. (Washington Post)