Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — President-elect Donald Trump’s contentious pick for EPA administrator — started his confirmation hearing on Wednesday on shaky scientific ground, casting false doubt on the link between human activity and climate change and stating that he did not know whether there was such a thing as safe levels of lead for human consumption.
“Let me say to you, science tells us the climate is changing, and human activity in some degree impacts that change,” Pruitt said in his opening statement. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well as should be.”
Pruitt has long attempted to color climate science with far more uncertainty than is actually present, writing in a 2016 op-ed that the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” In reality, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is both happening and a result of human activity — that’s about the same certainty with which the scientific community links smoking cigarettes to lung cancer.
While Pruitt was casting doubt on the extent of human’s influence on climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released confirmation that 2016 was officially the hottest year on record, breaking previous records set in 2014 and 2015.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) again pushed Pruitt on his reluctance to name human activity as the cause of climate change.
“I have acknowledged that human activity impacts —” Pruitt responded when asked by Sanders why he thinks the climate is changing.
“The scientific community doesn’t tell us it impacts, they say it is the cause of climate change, and we have to transform our energy system,” Sanders responded.
But climate change wasn’t the only issue on which Pruitt claimed ignorance from the mainstream scientific consensus — he also claimed not to know whether there is such a thing as a safe level of lead exposure for human consumption, though he did voice concern over any level of lead for human consumption.
When asked by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) whether Pruitt believed “there is any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, particularly a young person,” Pruitt said that he had not reviewed the science on that matter, and did not know.
“Senator, that is something I have not reviewed nor know about,” Pruitt responded. “I would be very concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water or obviously human consumption, but I’ve not looked at the scientific research on that.”
The scientific consensus is that there is no safe level for consumption of lead, especially in young children. This consensus is backed up by the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization. Lead exposure, especially in young children, can lead to profound health consequences, including stunted growth, intellectual disability, hearing loss, kidney damage, and behavioral disorders. Later in life, childhood lead exposure has been linked to an increased likelihood criminal behavior.
Despite the clear scientific consensus on the public health threats of lead, public policy has been slow to change. Lead was added to gasoline long after the detrimental health impacts of lead were known — and lead paint is still found in many public housing throughout the United States.
The EPA monitors lead in water as part of both the Clean Water Act and Safe Water Drinking Act. Unlike some of the toxins or pollutants that the EPA monitors under those laws, the scientific consensus is that there is no safe level of lead exposure in drinking water — something that a future EPA administrator should be aware of.