A Congressional Bill That Would Force the EPA to Compromise Privacy

Illustration for article titled A Congressional Bill That Would Force the EPA to Compromise Privacy

In the United States, Republicans are continuing their campaign to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job. Their latest effort includes accusing the EPA of "secrecy" because the agency refuses to disclose citizens' private health information.


The result is the Secret Science Reform Act, or HR 4012, sponsored by David Schweikert, R-Ariz. The goal of the bill, say its supporters, is to force the EPA to disclose all data they've used to make new rules. On its face, this bill is seems to be calling for the same reforms that patient advocates have asked for from pharmaceutical companies, which sometimes withhold data that shows negative results from their medicines. But that's not what this bill aims to do at all.

What Schweikert and his allies are actually calling for is the release of millions of pieces of private medical data, which is both illegal and unethical. Often EPA uses private health data to track whether environmental problems like pollution are causing illnesses. The resulting research and studies are available for the public, but the data is kept private — just as all medical records are kept private in the U.S. by law.


On Roll Call, Andrew Rosenberg from the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that the Secret Science Reform Act would create a "Catch-22" for the EPA:

This bill would require the agency to make all data public before creating new rules while blocking the agency from disclosing private medical data, trade secrets and industry data. The result? The EPA would not be able to adopt any new rules to protect public health.

Essentially, this is a tactic to prevent the EPA from ever getting any new rules made. Unless the agency illegally unveiled people's private health records, they would not be allowed to argue that environmental toxins were making people sick. And companies releasing those toxins could continue doing it. Over at MSNBC, Steve Benan writes:

First, the bill's GOP sponsors hope to block the Environmental Protection Agency from using top-notch medical research before acting to help the public. The Union of Concerned Scientists' Dr. Andrew Rosenberg explained, "Some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public. Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide."

Second, as Christopher Flavelle explained, the legislation is intended to vastly increase the cost of scientific research, limiting the amount of work the EPA would be able to do in any given year.

There's also the small matter of fixing a problem that doesn't exist. Flavelle added, "I asked a spokeswoman for Representative David Schweikert, the bill's sponsor, for examples of outside groups that have tried replicating the results of studies on which EPA has based some its regulations, but were unable because of restrictions on that data. I made the same request of a spokeswoman for Smith. Neither provided any."


This bill has passed the House and is the second in a one-two punch that the GOP delivered to the EPA this week. The first, HR-1422, would force the EPA to consult scientists appointed by private industry (often representing polluters) rather than independent scientists unaffiliated with industry or government.


Republican politicians in the United States are fond of saying that they aren't scientists, and therefore can't judge scientific issues. That's a reasonable position to take, but not when they're also actively trying to dismantle all the ways that scientists could advise them, or inform their decisions with scientific data.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

There is little question that the Republican Party are trying to solidify their reputation as a cartoonishly evil cabal that want to repress us all with fear, but this data can be released if it is done properly. If you de-identify and aggregate the data so that no individual can be picked out, it is legal.

Furthermore, contradictory government regulations are nothing new. Medicare rules are so huge and self contradictory that it is something of a joke. All government departments suffer from this. We accept unused medicines from patients. It is convenient for them and we make sure they are disposed of properly so they don't end up in the water supply. The one problem is opiates. The DEA policy is "crush and flush." Count the pills, keep careful records, crush them in front of witnesses, keep a log, flush them down the toilet. The EPA says "fuck no, don't flush them down the toilet." How should we dispose of them, Mr EPA? "Not like that." Um, ok. So we do what the DEA says because that's what the pharmacies, hospitals and police departments do and no one else has a better idea.

So on the one hand, I understand and sympathize with the stated republican position that government is far too big and unwieldy. I agree that a smaller, more streamlined government could be cheaper and more effective. But I am not naive enough to think that they want to dismantle these organizations to make government more streamlined and effective, as opposed to allowing Dow-Corning and BP to poison the earth so they can make a few more billion dollars.