Week 42: Our Air Is Too Clean?

The EPA hires off-the-wall scientists (again), plays hide-and-seek with Congress, and more.

November 09, 2017

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

What a Load of Bull

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been restocking the agency’s scientific advisory committees this week, mostly with industry insiders. And one of the few academics that Pruitt has selected, Robert Phalen of the University of California, Irvine, has an unorthodox view of air pollution.

“Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health,” Phalen told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a 2012 profile that is now gaining attention. In a recent follow-up, Phelan noted that children raised on farms and with pets tend to have lower asthma rates. This theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, posits that the antisepsis of modern life is responsible for an increase in asthma and allergies.

Phalen’s statement is troubling. The hygiene hypothesis has nothing to do with “clean air,” at least as the EPA typically thinks of clean air (i.e., not polluted). German immunologist Erika von Mutius, the originator of the hygiene hypothesis, based her theory on the observation that people who were exposed to dirt and manure in early life were less likely to suffer from allergies. Since then, adherents of the hypothesis have focused on microbiome research, which examines the microbial communities that colonize the human body. The field revolves around the population of microbes in our bodies and in our homes.

I am aware of no evidence that suggests exposure to soot, ground-level ozone, or other environmental pollutants—the kind of pollutants on which the EPA generally focuses—reduces the incidence of asthma or allergies. To the contrary, there is ample evidence that particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and ozone increase the burden of those disorders.

In short, our children’s hands might be too clean, but our air is definitely not.

Smog? Nothing to See Here . . .

Speaking of ozone, Scott Pruitt has again decided to ignore deadlines that require him to identify places where levels of the smog-forming pollutant are higher than the EPA’s own limits allow. It’s Pruitt’s latest move to ignore, evade, and delay doing his job.

The ozone saga began in June, when Pruitt announced he would delay implementation of newly tightened ozone limits by one year. Fifteen states immediately sued the EPA for failing to enforce its own rules. Pruitt then reversed course, agreeing to implement the rules on schedule. He depicted his decision as a display of his responsiveness to states’ needs.

Right. Pruitt was required to publish a list of the parts of the country that are in compliance with the rule—and which are not—by October 1. Not only did he miss that deadline by more than a month, but he also identified only the zones that are in compliance, refusing to indicate which ones are falling short. This isn’t just a technicality. Naming the violators is what starts the clock for states to develop remediation strategies. By declining to set that in motion, Pruitt is ensuring that the children living in heavily polluted cities and towns continue to breathe unhealthy air.

The EPA won’t even set a timetable for identifying these areas. It turns out that Pruitt’s about-face on ozone rules was likely just a smokescreen.

You’ve Been Served

Pruitt doesn’t like facing tough questions (he prefers the Fox & Friends variety), and some Republicans in Congress have been doing their utmost to protect him, rarely inviting the EPA administrator to testify. But this week, Democrats in both the House and Senate officially demanded that the Republican leaders of the committees that are supposed to be overseeing Pruitt’s work bring him before Congress.

“Nearly ten months into the 115th Congress, more than seven months after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was sworn in, and only days before the start of the next fiscal year, the Committee has yet to hold a hearing to examine EPA’s budget,” Senate Democrats wrote to Senator John Barrasso, the Republican chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“[T]he American public and the U.S. Congress have a right to hear Administrator Pruitt’s responses to serious questions regarding his squandering of vital EPA resources, his potential mismanagement of his office, and decisions he has made,” House Democrats wrote to Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Sorry, Fox News. No more softballs for Pruitt. It’s time for him to appear before the committees that are supposed to be managing him.

Keeping Climate Change in the Family

Kyle Yunaska is now the chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, a unit that helped lead federal climate change strategy during the Obama administration. You probably haven’t heard of Yunaska. He has worked as an accounting manager and a tax analyst in the past. But there is one notable thing about him—his sister is married to Eric Trump, the president’s son.

Perhaps nothing signals President Trump’s contempt for government more strongly than his hiring practices. Many of his nominees and hires are either industry puppets (Scott Pruitt), unqualified (Sam Clovis), his own family (Jared, Ivanka), or some combination of the above.

Nepotism is not unprecedented in the executive branch. John F. Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general, and Bill Clinton put Hillary Clinton in charge of his health care initiative. But Donald Trump is treating the presidency like a full employment plan for his family. It’s clearly inappropriate and unethical, and it might be illegal. Federal law prohibits executive branch officials from hiring and promoting their relatives. The only reason Trump has been able to flagrantly violate the prohibition is that he got his own Justice Department to issue an unprecedented opinion that the law doesn’t apply to the president.

Add that to the long list of laws that Trump plans to ignore.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jarod Carruthers/Flickr
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