During the campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly threatened to dismantle “the Department of Environment Protection,” or what most of us know as the Environmental Protection Agency. While there was little reason to think he’d carry through with that threat, he has developed a pattern of nominating climate change skeptics to the federal government’s foremost environmental agency, effectively dismantling it.
Take EPA head Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, sued the EPA 14 times. Robert Phalen, one of 17 appointees to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, is just the latest in a string of unqualified appointees with dubious environmental beliefs. In 2012, while serving as an air pollution researcher at the University of California, Irvine, Phalen told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.” This idea is not only wrong, it’s disgusting. Air pollution has been shown to increase rates of childhood asthma and allergies and leads to higher numbers of heart attacks and lung cancer.
The skepticism toward this science is personal for me; I was diagnosed with, and outgrew, childhood asthma in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was once the city with the most polluted air in the United States. Decades of hard work have transformed the city into a national model for environmental improvement, but a pervasive smog choked out downtown Chattanooga for years. People moved out of downtown, ground zero of the pollution problem, and businesses refused to move there. Pictures from the time period show the city covered in a layer of smoke, and it’s hard to think about the devastating economic and health implications it had for the local population. I’m afraid that the degradation of the EPA will lead to the resurfacing of environmental problems such as these.
Despite our recent history, bad science keeps getting a platform. Shortly after his 2012 speech, Phalen backed up his argument by pointing out that children who grew up on farms or had family pets tend to have lower asthma rates. He is referencing what’s known as the hygiene hypothesis, which argues that children who are exposed to dirt in early life are less likely to have allergies. This hypothesis has nothing to do with clean air. While there’s some reason to think handling dirt can improve health, increased amounts of particulate matter in the air makes people less healthy and doesn’t protect kids from allergies or asthma as he’s claiming. Phalen’s attempts to tie the two together are disingenuous and potentially deeply harmful.
Thankfully, states and cities are free to make progress on their own, but the effective muzzling of the federal government’s chief environmental watchdog is deeply troubling. Even more concerning is the Trump administration’s promotion of fringe environmental beliefs. It’s disconcerting that an important scientific nominee can claim that our air is too clean while reports come in that tens of thousands of Dallas-area children could have asthma attacks from drilling-related smog by 2025. Instead of addressing this problem by proposing new regulations or pushing stronger enforcement of existing regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the EPA is doing very little to promote a cleaner environment.
It’s unclear what we can do except vote for a president who understands the high stakes of environmental regulation in 2020 and demand that our senators vote against climate change deniers. We just have to hope that the EPA, and the health of our nation’s children, can hang on until then.
Price is a sophomore government major from Chattanooga, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @price_zach.