Trump’s Environmental Rollbacks Put Thousands of Lives at Risk, Harvard Analysis Finds

The authors used EPA’s own risk assessments to estimate the number of illnesses and early deaths prevented by clean air and water rules Trump is now trying to erase.

The greatest number of health impacts are linked to one deregulatory move that would open a loophole for more truck pollution. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The greatest number of health impacts are linked to one deregulatory move that would open a loophole for more truck pollution. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own numbers, two Harvard scientists have calculated that 80,000 more lives will be lost per decade if President Donald Trump’s administration fulfills its plans to roll back clean air and water protections.

The researchers, terming their tally “an extremely conservative estimate,” also estimated that the repeal of regulations will lead to respiratory problems for more than 1 million people. Their essay was published Tuesday in the authoritative Journal of the American Medical Association.

“We felt it was important to take a comprehensive view,” said Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician and co-director of the Data Science Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some people, when looking at one specific repealing of a rule, might not think it’s important. We wanted to put some numbers on the whole systematic repeal of rule after rule.”


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She and David Cutler, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, drew their calculation from the health risk assessments that the EPA conducted during the Obama administration when determining the impact of rules it proposed. Last week, the Trump administration signaled it plans to overhaul the way that those cost-benefit studies are conducted. The agency is taking comments for the next 30 days on its plan, which has the potential to reduce the weight given to human health and climate benefits.

Dominici and Cutler decried creating greater risks to the public’s health for the benefit of “a relatively few well-connected companies.”

“The effects of the Trump administration’s policies seem clear, even through the haze they will create,” they wrote.

Pruitt’s EPA Challenging the Assessments

The EPA dismissed the article because it was not peer-reviewed but appeared instead in the JAMA Forum, where researchers offer perspectives. “This is not a scientific article, it’s a political article,” the EPA said in response to InsideClimate News’ request for comment.

But Dominici noted that she and Cutler pulled the numbers directly from the EPA risk assessments that had been developed for each of the rules they analyzed. “The EPA numbers themselves all rely on peer-reviewed science,” Dominici said.

The EPA numbers, in fact, are being challenged and in some cases scaled back by the Trump administration as it seeks to revoke or replace Obama-era rules. But these moves face numerous legal challenges, and the agency will have to show that it has not acted arbitrarily or capriciously to pass muster in the courts.

It’s hard to argue against the ample evidence that if air quality standards are relaxed, the health of those who breathe the air will suffer. The same goes for standards for water, pesticides, toxic waste and so on. Runaway climate change, too, would present a wide range of public health risks.

One Rollback, Majority of Respiratory Illnesses

The largest and most immediate health consequences are likely to come through erosion of air quality, Cutler and Domenici wrote. They included in their calculation the repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan, as well as the rollback of vehicle fuel economy standards and Trump’s tariffs on solar power components from abroad.

About 90 percent of the increase in respiratory ailments can be attributed to one deregulatory move—the effort to re-open a loophole that allowed trucks that don’t comply with pollution rules to remain on the road, the authors found.

Public health scientists have been raising increasing alarms as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has advanced Trump’s deregulatory agenda. They have protested Pruitt’s move to bar government-funded scientists from sitting on the agency’s Science Advisory Board, and nearly 1,000 scientists signed a letter opposing Pruitt’s plan to place restrictions on the EPA’s use of science.

Pruitt’s ‘Secret Science’ Plan Targets Health Data

In their JAMA essay, Dominici and Cutler singled out the move to curb agency use of science as one of the most potentially consequential, because Pruitt is targeting epidemiological studies of human subjects. Although Pruitt calls this a move for greater “transparency,” Dominici said it would in fact bar EPA consideration of precisely the kinds of studies that formed the basis of the calculations that she and Cutler did.

“They are attacking the science because the science is what is putting the number of deaths where they are,” she said. “It’s a tactic to discredit the science, so that health impact analysis will not be able to be done any more.”

The EPA, which received more than 150,000 public comments in 30 days on its proposal to restrict agency science, has extended the comment period on that proposal through August.  The agency also has set a July 17 hearing in Washington, D.C., on the plan.