Incoming EPA Adviser Thinks Air Is Too Clean

Air Pollution
A chimney is seen in front of residential buildings during a polluted day in Harbin, China, on January 21, 2016. Robert Phalen, a researcher joining the EPA’s board of science advisers, thinks clean air is bad for your health. REUTERS

One of the new White House appointees to a critical environmental panel once said that the air these days is just too clean to promote good health.

Robert Phalen, an air pollution researcher at the Irvine campus of the University of California, said in 2012 that children need to breathe irritants so that their bodies learn how to ward them off.

"Modern air," he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "is a little too clean for optimum health."

Phalen is one of 17 new appointees to the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board, which helps develop environmental policy. Other nominees include scientists from the oil industry, a chemical industry trade association and various universities and consulting groups.

Like Phalen, many are expected to argue for less regulation, an agenda that is backed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

But Phalen's earlier comments drew renewed interest in his career as a researcher and an opponent of air pollution-related regulations. Much like President Donald Trump, Phalen prides himself on holding unpopular opinions, like his 2004 study that air pollution is not such a big deal.

"The relative risks associated with modern [particulate matter] are very small and confounded by many factors," Phalen wrote. "Neither toxicology studies nor human clinical investigations have identified the components and/or characteristics of [particulate matter] that might be causing the health-effect associations."

Phalen also received heat after he defended his use of dogs to test the effects of air pollution on lung health on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1980s—a controversial stance he maintained in several radio and television interviews.

"My most important role in science is causing trouble and controversy," he said in the 2012 interview.

The Trump administration has moved quickly to assert its control over the EPA's science team. Several members of the advisory panel were dismissed in May, part of the EPA's anti-regulatory agenda and shift to hearing more voices from business and industry, said some departed members of the panel. President Trump directed Pruitt to cut the EPA budget by 40 percent, and to roll back regulations on clean water protection and climate change prevention. The official EPA website also deleted pages that included climate change research.

More recently, Pruitt announced that no scientist who received funding from the agency would be eligible to serve on the advisory board, a move that blocks hundreds of credible scientists from the panel. Pruitt said the move would prevent conflicts of interest, but critics say it's a false issue.

"They pretend that the industry people who are being offered up positions on the panel are somehow unbiased because they're not getting money from EPA," Donna Kenski of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium in Illinois told The New York Times. Kenski was dismissed from a clean air advisory board earlier in the week, the Times reported.