EPA Director Scott Pruitt says that he should be able to choose his own advisors, but Pruitt is giving corporate scientists priority, undermining the public’s health. We speak to Barbara Gottlieb of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the leading plaintiff in the case
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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s Sharmini Peries for the Real News Network. There is a lawsuit underway against Scott Pruitt at the EPA. The suit is related to a policy that Pruitt announced last October barring scientists who receive Environmental Protection Agency grants from serving on the agency’s advisory boards, a move critics called a war on independent science. Attendees for the Department of Justice defending Pruitt have filed for the case to be dismissed, saying that he has the right to choose his own advisors, and the policy upholds government ethics rules, which raises questions about whether the head of the EPA and the EPA itself is there to protect us, the citizens, or is it there to protect Pruitt and the corporate interest?
With us to discuss this is Barbara Gottlieb. She is the Director of Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. I thank you so much for joining us, Barbara.
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Pleasure to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: Barbara, let’s start with why is your organization suing Scott Pruitt at the EPA?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Well, we’re suing the EPA because they’re proposing to do something that would really weaken the science that they perform and that underlies a lot of the protective action that they are supposed to take to protect our health and well being. Specifically they want to remove from one of their own bodies, what they call their science advisory board, the independent scientists who review their science. They make the claim that those scientists should be removed if they receive any payment from the EPA for other work they may be doing, but it’s hypocritical because they’re not removing from the science advisory board the scientists who are paid by industry. What they are proposing to do is to leave in place the scientists who are paid by industry, pass judgment on science that might reflect on the industries that they are in.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, why do you consider this a legal challenge, particularly given Scott Pruitt is the head of the EPA and he can appoint whoever he wants to advise him?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Well, I think we need to look a little bit more deeply. We need to look at the purpose of the EPA. The EPA exists to protect human health ad well being, and if what he’s proposing to do is to undercut the science, then we’re not gonna have real meaningful information about what pollution exists. We’re not gonna have real meaningful information about pollution that’s in our air, that’s in our water, about toxic chemicals. We won’t know how it harms our health. We won’t know if there are any safe exposure levels. No, that’s not acceptable.
SHARMINI PERIES: And to what degree have scientists and doctors been purged or censored by the current administration or the EPA?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: I don’t think I have any numbers that I could give you, but let me tell you what I’ve heard. I’ve heard from a lot of people who work at the EPA, it is a really hard place to work nowadays if you’re interested in really doing your job, really doing the science. So a lot of EPA scientists have left, not because they were fired but because really they felt they couldn’t stay on and do what they were there to do. So there have been severe losses of staff. There have also been severe cuts in the EPA budget proposed, and the congress will presumably enact. All of these things are meant to weaken the voice of science.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now you’re a physician, are you?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: No, I’m personally not a physician. I appreciate the promotion, but I’m not.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Barbara. Barbara, link for us the connection between environmental issues and public health. Is it mostly linked to toxins and environmental pollutants or is there more to it?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Well, I think that what you’re pointing to, the presence of toxics throughout our environment is the essence of it, but it’s not small, it’s huge. Plus what we’re finding is that we have toxic substances, toxic as in potentially lethal, in our air, in our water, in our food, in the products that we surround ourselves with in our homes. And sometimes when people talk or think about being sick, we might think about oh I’ve got a cold or I have the flu, but let’s frame it in terms of the leading causes of death in this country. Environmental pollution contributes to most of the leading causes of death in this country, whether it’s heart disease, cancer, stroke, or serious chronic lower respiratory disease. So yes, it’s environmental causes, and yes they’re extremely serious.
SHARMINI PERIES: So the increase we are seeing in places like Baltimore for example, where a large number of young children are experiencing asthma and is directly documented by places like John Hopkins. Is this related to the topic of environmental hazards and impacts on health?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Well, of course it is, and it’s also very related to the Environmental Protection Agency. So we know that asthma has a number of causes, it has a number of triggers, but we know that substances in air pollution can definitely make it worse. We know that ground level ozone, also referred to as smog, can trigger asthma. And these are things that are caused either directly by state industry, by coal-fired power plants. Or in the case of smog, smog forms from other chemicals in the presence of heat. That means it’s worse in the summer and it’s worse when we have climate change, as we do now.
So all of these things directly affect asthma, directly affect children’s health, cause children to be sick, to miss time from school, and on and on and on. And many of them are regulated by the EPA. If Scott Pruitt takes steps that remove independent honest and broker scientists from the science advisory board, then what he’s really doing is reducing the likelihood that we’ll get true honest science that will tell us how much pollution is in the air, how much pollution can we stand, what should we do to reduce pollution?
SHARMINI PERIES: Barbara, outline for us the extent to which Pruitt and the Trump administration has undone the kind of protections that had been put in place at the EPA over time to ensure that we have certain protections and that there is regulations in place, that they’re supposed to see. In fact they are the watchdog. How much of this has been done so far?
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Well, it’s really shocking and even frightening how much the Pruitt EPA is trying to roll back the very fundamental laws as well as regulations that are protecting our health. So I think we can look across the board. In terms of air, there are assaults from the EPA on the Clean Air Act, which is about the oldest environmental law in the country, it was created bilaterally, and it’s been cleaning up the air in America for decades. So the notion that they would want to weaken the clean air act is truly shocking, but they do, they want to roll back some of our protections under the Clean Water Act. You remember that the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris accord for protection from climate change. So it’s really a massive assault on regulations.
Some people think, oh, regulations are bad, but regulations as I understand it, it simply means the way in which we carry out the laws that have been passed. So it doesn’t start with the EPA, it doesn’t start with regulations, it starts with laws. And then my way of thinking, it’s what we need to do to keep all of us healthy and safe. And so to be facing a government that seems to be bound and determined to weaken the protections for our health, it’s quite discouraging and it’s why organizations like my own, Physicians for Social Responsibility, are bringing the health voice, the voice of doctors and other health professionals, forward to advocate for policies that really do protect all of us. We shouldn’t have to save them, we shouldn’t have to say to the EPA, “Your own science shows us that we need to protect ourselves at higher levels from ozone, which is the most widespread pollutant in the United States.” But they’re trying to weaken the ozone standard. They’re trying to do this across the board. It’s very worrisome.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us and highlighting what’s at stake here, and I wish you all the best with the lawsuit on our behalf.
BARBARA GOTTLIEB: Thank you very much, and a pleasure to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.