Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is pursuing a rule-change that has a long strategic history — and a lot of critics.

EPA’s Proposed Rule: Transparency Boon, or Deregulatory Torpedo?

For years, some Republican lawmakers and officials have pushed for rules that would limit the scientific evidence the Environmental Protection Agency can use when making regulatory decisions. The latest iteration of that effort became public on Monday after The New York Times published a leaked EPA proposal that, if finalized, would require the agency to ignore studies unless the authors make their raw data available to public officials.

Data-sharing is a good practice in many fields, and supporters say these regulations will promote the use of more rigorous, reproducible studies. But critics argue that because important studies are often based on confidential medical data that, by law, cannot be shared, the EPA proposal would render otherwise good science unusable in the development of environmental policies. The new EPA proposal “risks cutting off foundational research that has informed EPA’s work for decades,” wrote Alan Leshner, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a letter to members of Congress.

The roots of this strategy appear to go back to the 1990s, when tobacco industry representatives sought to stop EPA air pollution regulations. Much of the evidence for those regulations came from a landmark Harvard study on air pollution and mortality. In a 1996 memo to his clients at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, attorney Christopher Horner acknowledged that tobacco companies were unlikely to stop the new regulations by simply debating the science. Instead, Horner suggested a strategy of “addressing process as opposed to scientific substance” — in part by backing rules that would make it more difficult for the EPA to use the results of some scientific studies in its decision-making process.

In a 2017 investigation for The Intercept, reporter Sharon Lerner documented how this tobacco-industry tactic came to inform so-called “secret science” legislation — though most efforts have so far been unsuccessful. In 2014 and 2015, House Republicans passed the Secret Science Reform Acts, but both died in the Senate. A similar bill, the Honest Act of 2017, did not make it out of committee.

Still, advocates have continued pushing for some version of such a rule at the EPA, sometimes invoking ongoing scientific debates about the need for replication and reproducibility. In April 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a version of the rule, but the effort faltered after he abruptly departed the agency amid a series of ethics investigations in July 2018. 

Now Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, has raised the issue again. His proposal is likely to draw scrutiny from many scientists — and from Democratic lawmakers. “The requirement for data to be publicly available is nothing more than an attempt to undercut the EPA’s mandate to use the best available science,” Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said in prepared remarks on Wednesday. “I believe this is part of an effort to destroy regulations that protect public health but are opposed by some regulated industries.”

Also in the news: 

• Doctors at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, have performed what they believe is the first double lung transplant on a patient in the United States whose lungs had been damaged by vaping. While healthy, inflated lungs typically appear as two dark bell shapes in medical scans, the patient’s lungs were so badly damaged that doctors said they were invisible on a CT scan taken prior to the surgery. According to Hassan Nemeh, a thoracic surgeon who led the operation, the damage was unlike anything he had seen in his 20 years of surgical experience. “This is an evil I haven’t faced before,” Nemeh said during a news conference. The patient, whose name was withheld, is in stable condition. His family wanted to share details of his case in the hopes that it might inspire others to quit vaping. As incidents of vaping-related illness continue to rise — as of November 13, there have been 2,172 cases and 42 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — researchers are rushing to find the chemical culprit. Some evidence points to vitamin E acetate, an additive and thickening agent in some vaping products. (The New York Times)

• Renee Salas “cannot think of a greater health emergency” than the health risks imposed on children by climate change. Salas is a co-author on a new study in The Lancet, which reports that a warming planet does not just mean an increase in natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding, fires, and droughts — but also an environment ripe for diseases like dengue fever, which has seen a marked increase in ideal transmission conditions in the last 20 years. Lead author and Australian ER doctor Nick Watts told the Associated Press that children “will bear the vast majority of the burden of climate change” because of health risks such as respiratory and kidney problems, overheating, and vulnerability to bacterial diseases. For example, the report shows that the number of days ripe for the transmission of Vibrio, a water-borne bacteria that causes diarrhea, has doubled since 1980. Nearly 70 authors contributed the report, which calls for accelerated intervention to combat increased extreme weather events, food and water insecurity, and changes in infectious diseases. (The Associated Press)

• The poisonous, colorful, and unwelcome algae bloom known as a “red tide” has recently begun spreading again off the southwest coast of Florida, barely a year after it caused widespread sea creature deaths and millions of dollars in economic damage along the state’s Atlantic coast. The phenomenon is caused by the spread of a particular species of algae, Karenia brevis, which belongs to a group of toxin-producing microorganisms that scientists refer to as harmful algae blooms (HAB). While red tides occur naturally, researchers have found that the massive blooms spreading across Florida’s coastal waters, staining the water red or a rusty brown, have been amplified by agricultural runoff that’s rich in nitrogen and other growth-promoting fertilizer compounds. Last year, the problem was so severe that the governor of Florida declared a state of emergency. This year, the algal bloom seems to be concentrated along four counties, centered near Sarasota, but the effects are already severe, raising concerns that the impacts may spread further. (USA Today)

• On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published details of a secretive Google effort to collect private health data from patients in 21 states without their permission. Known as “Project Nightingale,” the initiative is a partnership between Google and St. Louis-based Ascension, a health care system that includes 2,600 hospitals, doctors’ offices, and medical facilities. The initiative created a database of patient profiles that health providers could reference to make recommendations, including treatment plans and specialist referrals. According to the WSJ, Ascension employees have raised ethical red flags regarding both the data collection process and data sharing, but privacy experts suggest it’s legal under the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. In addition to mining health data, the search giant may also begin accruing new personal finance data. A new project, code-named “Cache,” would allow Google users to open checking accounts through Google Pay, in partnership with Citigroup and a Stanford University credit union. (The Wall Street Journal)

• Italy declared a state of emergency in response to flooding in Venice on Thursday, with water levels topping 6 feet — the highest the city has seen in 50 years. As flood waters inundated popular tourist sites, including the iconic St. Mark’s Basilica, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro took to Twitter to lament the extensive damage the flooding has done to the historic city and its residents, estimating recovery costs in the hundreds of millions of euros. Brugnaro blamed the situation on climate change, a charge echoed by Italy’s Environment Minister Sergio Costa, who said, “We need to be resilient and adapt. We need a policy that looks at the climate through completely different eyes.” Although a project to protect the city from rising sea levels with a series of flood barriers, known as Mose, has been underway since 2003 and is expected to be operational by the end of 2021, critics say it may be too little, too late. (BBC)

• The recent murder of two Indonesian environmental activists in North Sumatra has raised concerns over the increasing danger to those who campaign against the palm oil industry. Police in Indonesia have arrested five people in connection with the deaths of Martua Siregar and Maraden Sianipar, including the head of the Amelia palm oil company, Wibharry Padmoasmolo. Padmoasmolo, who denies the charge, is accused of having paid several men around $3,000 to carry out a hit on the two activists, who had been working with local farmers to try to wrest control of land from an oil palm plantation run by Amelia. The multibillion-dollar palm oil industry is the largest contributor to deforestation in Indonesia, and palm oil companies have also been accused of worker exploitation. (Reuters, Mongabay

• “To an outsider, the scene might look like a serial killer’s dumping ground,” Rene Ebersole reported in Undark this week, “but it was just another day at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Anthropology Research Facility, popularly known as the ‘body farm.’” It’s just that: a facility where human remains, in various stages of decomposition amid the grass and trees, are studied while they rot. The goal is to better understand the science of human decay — in part to improve the precision that law enforcement officers can bring to identifying corpses, or pinpointing time of death. And as Ebersole reveals, many of the secrets that corpses have to tell could be embedded in the microbes that drive decomposition, and that call these cadaverous “necrobiomes” home. It turns out that the microscopic choreography of decay might well have predictable patterns, and as such, reveal quite a bit — from the sex of the deceased and whether or not drug use was involved, to whether a body was moved, and even underlying medical conditions that can aid in body identification. Of course, it’s still early days for such research, University of Tennessee soil scientist Jennifer DeBruyn cautioned. “We need to step back and observe the whole system — chemistry, maggots, microbes, soil,” she said. “This is classic ecology, observing the ecosystem.” (Undark)

• And finally: Nine South Korean professors were accused this week of improperly naming children as coauthors on academic papers, possibly to help the children win coveted university spots, Nature reports. The children range from middle-school to high-school age; some were given co-authorship by their parents, others by adults with whom they had no special relationship. But, according to South Korea’s education ministry, the children all had this much in common: They made no contributions to the papers on which they were named. The allegations follow a May report that accused more than a half-dozen other South Korean professors of the same misdeed. The country’s education ministry claims that in several of the cases, the child listed the co-authorship on a university application and subsequently gained admission. In all, two dozen questionable papers with child co-authorships have been identified in South Korea since the issue first came to light in 2017. But academics like So Young Kim of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology think that may be just the tip of the iceberg. “My impression is that this practice is more widespread than we might think,” she told Nature. (Nature)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and authored by Undark staff and interns.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.