An appointee to an Environmental Protection Agency panel for public health has previously stated that air in the U.S. is too clean. Comments made by members of the panel have prompted critics to wonder if its decisions will be based on solid science.
On Oct. 31, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed several scientists from advisory roles and instituted a new rule, prohibiting anyone who had accepted grants from the agency from being brought on to offer counsel. The EPA is among the nation's largest funders of scientific research, meaning the rule change would bar a broad swath of academic researchers from advising the agency, The New York Times reports.
"Our focus should be sound science, not political science," Pruitt said while announcing the new rule.
That same day, Pruitt appointed 18 new members of the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board, a panel established in 1978 to provide the agency with scientific and unbiased advice.
Among the appointees was Robert Phalen of the University of California, an air pollution researcher. Phalen drew controversy during the 1980s for using dogs as test subjects to study the impact of air pollution on lungs, according to Newsweek.
In July 2012, Phalen asserted during an interview that U.S. air quality was too good and that it was healthy for the lungs to be exposed to some toxins.
"Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health," Phalen told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Phalen added that children should be exposed to some air irritants so their lungs could build up immunities.
Pruitt also appointed director of toxicology Michael Honeycutt of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to chair the SAB. Honeycutt has previously criticized the EPA for warning Americans against the toxicity of arsenic and mercury, according to the Texas Observer.
Executive director Luke Metzger of Environment Texas blasted Honeycutt's appointment, asserting that the new SAB chair had a record of ignoring science.
"It's a big mistake to appoint Michael Honeycutt to lead the Science Advisory Board," Metzger said in a statement. "Dr. Honeycutt has made repeated public statements undermining the integrity of the science on ozone as well as other pollutants, including mercury, despite consensus from the medical community on the harms of exposure to such pollutants."
Director of data analysis Donna Kenski of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium criticized Pruitt for changing the EPA advisory rules without also prohibiting appointments of officials who have worked in industries that the agency may have to regulate.
"The really galling part of this is that it's all in an effort to avoid conflict on interest, but they pretend that the industry people who are being offered up positions on the panel are somehow unbiased because they're not getting money from the EPA," Kenski said.
On Oct. 19, a study conducted by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that air pollution was the primary cause of death for 1 in 6 people worldwide. The study concluded that poor air quality was deadlier than obesity, malnutrition or smoking, according to Business Insider.