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Sound science up in smoke

Editorial Copyright 1998 The Washington Times July 21, 1998

It's a good thing Carol Browner doesn't have to make her living as a scientist. Otherwise the Environmental Protection Agency administrator would find herself dependent on a very different kind of public assistance than she does at present.

Late last week a federal district judge issued a withering ruling on agency research purporting to link second-hand cigarette smoke - also known as environmental tobacco smoke - with cancer in non-smokers. EPA had claimed the smoke was a potent carcinogen that causes 3,000 cancer deaths a year, give or take several thousand. District Judge William Osteen, however, accused the agency of Alice in Wonderland-style justice, in which the verdict comes before the evidence.

"In this case," he wrote, "EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun, excluded industry by violating [statutory] procedural requirements; adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency's public conclusion, and aggressively utilized [statutory] authority to disseminate findings to establish a de facto regulatory scheme intended to restrict Plaintiff's products and to influence public opinion."

He continued: "In conducting the ETS Risk Assessment, EPA disregarded information and made findings on selective information, did not disseminate significant epidemiologic information; deviated from its Risk Assessment Guidelines; failed to disclose important findings and reasoning; and left significant questions without answers. EPA's conduct left substantial holes in the administrative record. While so doing, EPA produced limited evidence, then claimed the weight of the Agency's research evidence demonstrated ETS causes cancer."

In short, this risk assessment is worth every penny the recycling industry is willing to pay for it, but not much else. Even grading it on a government curve doesn't help. Still, EPA officials said they will probably appeal the decision. They also claim most scientists and health experts side with them about the potency of second-hand smoke.

Unfortunately for the agency, even if one is somehow able to overlook all of the errors in the study, second-hand smoke still doesn't amount to much of a risk. Said one of the report's co-authors, Steven Bayard, in the wake of its release, "I don't think the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers in general is very high." Likewise Morton Lippman, head of the EPA Science Advisory Board that reviewed the second-hand smoke findings, called it "a small added risk, probably much less than you took to get here through Washington traffic." The Congressional Research Service raised its own questions about the study, arguing, among other things, that the findings on the exposure levels of non-smokers to cigarette smoke were based on the their recollections rather than scientific measurements.

Could one dismiss the court's ruling, as President Clinton suggested in another case, by considering the source? Sure. But Judge Osteen is also the man who ruled last year that the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate nicotine levels in cigarettes. So this is a "source" with which the White House and EPA are going to have to live.

The fallout from this decision could be considerable. The much-hyped risks of second-hand smoke changed the debate over tobacco from one of individual choice to one of public health: It was one thing to allow smokers to put themselves at risk, something else again to put others at risk. Based on EPA's findings, numerous localities around the country passed statutes restricting smokers, in effect, to the back of the bus if they got any seat at all. Last year, EPA also justified controversial restrictions on emissions of particulate matter - the health risks of which are about the same size as the particulates themselves - on grounds that it was regulating similarly small risks from ETS. What happens to those rules now?

The problem here, as a scientific panel put it back in 1992, is that people both inside and outside the agency believe EPA science is based on EPA policy rather than the other way around. With this latest ruling, any reputation for sound science that EPA still has is going up in smoke.

Copyright 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved on original material. Material copyrighted by others is used either with permission or under a claim of "fair use." Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.

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