Outrage Over EPA Human Testing For Air Pollution Misses The Point

Tucker Carlson speaking at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC. CREDIT: FLICKR/GAGE SKIDMORE
Tucker Carlson speaking at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC. CREDIT: FLICKR/GAGE SKIDMORE

On Wednesday, an internal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general found that the agency failed to disclose long-term cancer risks to 81 human test subjects who consented to experiments in which they would be subject to breathing in ambient diesel exhaust and particulate matter (PM) for a two-hour period. The report “identified improvements that could be made to the EPA’s policies and guidance to enhance its protection of study subjects.” These included ensuring that forms consistently address pollution risks, updating its guidance to include clinical follow-up responsibilities, and several other measures of a similar variety.

The EPA concurred with all recommendations and provided planned corrective actions and completion dates meeting the intent of the recommendations. All the recommendations have been resolved and the agency was not found in violation of any law or regulation.

Or, as the Daily Caller, founded in 2010 by conservative news pundit Tucker Carlson, put it, “Report: EPA tested deadly pollutants on humans to push Obama admin’s agenda.”

Or, as put it, “EPA conducted pollution experiments on children.” Or the Washington Times, “EPA under fire for using humans as guinea pigs for pollution tests.”


Or this one, “EPA Conducted Experiments on Humans with Cancer-Causing and Lethal Pollutants,” from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. 17 out of 22 Republican members of the committee, or 77 percent, deny that climate change is occurring or that humans are the cause.

The report came in response to a request from Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA), who said upon the release of the report that “it is abhorrent for EPA to be conducting these human experiments without providing robust information and notification to the patients about the risks of death and following the strictest protocols. This blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of others is despicable, and the proper steps must be taken to ensure that such carelessness does not occur again.”

The response by conservative media outlets and Republican legislators is especially notable because it both misses the point and makes the point in nearly the same breath.

“PM is a mixture of harmful solid and liquid particles that the EPA regulates,” reports the Daily Caller, “these small particles can get into people’s respiratory system and can harm human health and even lead to death after just short-term exposure:”

“No one was killed during the test, but a source close to the issue says that one test subject — a 58-year-old obese woman with medical problems and a family history of heart disease — was ordered to go to the hospital by the EPA after being exposed to “ambient air pollution particles” in October 2010.”

Republicans continue to use the argument that the EPA is abusing human testing despite it being dismissed by the courts in January 2013 by Anthony John Trenga, a United States federal judge, in “American Traditions Institute v. US EPA.” In this case, the American Tradition Institute Environmental Law Center challenged the legality of the Environmental Protection Agency’s controlled human exposure studies relating to fine particulate matter.


In EPA’s motion to dismiss the case, the EPA said that study participants are exposed to concentrations of PM2.5 within expected exposure levels in their normal day-to-day life, and that EPA scientists estimated conservatively that the risk of lung cancer from exposure to the PM for two hours is less than one in a billion. As far as exposure to diesel exhaust particles, EPA scientists estimated that risk from concentrations in the study would be the equivalent of smoking 1/200th of a cigarette one single time.

In March, the World Health Organization released a report finding that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths around the world each year. As the Daily Caller points out, the EPA is tasked with regulating these harmful pollutants so that Americans encounter them less in daily life.

“One subject developed a persistent cough after being exposed to ozone for 15 minutes in April 2011 and two other subjects suffered from “cardiac arrhythmias” during testing in 2010 after being exposed to “clean air,” wrote the Daily Caller regarding the report on the EPA. However, no mention of the 3.7 million deaths a year that outdoor pollution causes, about 80 percent of which result from incidences of stroke and heart disease that are linked to pollution, was made.

According to the EPA, nearly the entire country is meeting air quality targets set years ago for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. Since 1990, emissions of volatile organic compounds have dropped 31 percent, carbon monoxide emissions dropped 46 percent and sulfur dioxide emissions dropped 51 percent since 1990.

“EPA air pollution standards save tens of thousands of lives every year compared to the air quality we would otherwise experience,” wrote PhD Gretchen Goldman, an analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Since the nation’s air quality standards are based on science, it is essential that we have a solid and continually advancing understanding of how air pollution affects our health. To address this, EPA does research in areas ranging from toxicology studies to large-scale studies of populations in multiple cities.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the impact of pollutants on human health and welfare by experimenting to see the impact of a pollutant on humans’ health and welfare. Republican attacks on the EPA are less about this specific issue than a distrust of the agency’s mission: limiting pollution and protecting human health and the environment.