Top EPA Science Adviser Has History Of Questioning Pollution Research : The Two-Way Michael Honeycutt, the top toxicologist for Texas, is the latest chair of the EPA's science advisory board. But some scientists warn his views align more with industry than with scientific consensus.
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Top EPA Science Adviser Has History Of Questioning Pollution Research

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Top EPA Science Adviser Has History Of Questioning Pollution Research

Top EPA Science Adviser Has History Of Questioning Pollution Research

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency has a new top science adviser who has a history of interpreting science in controversial ways. Michael Honeycutt now chairs the board of scientists that helps the head of the EPA make regulations. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: In 2015, Michael Honeycutt went on Houston Public Radio and said, if we reduce air pollution, people will die.

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MICHAEL HONEYCUTT: Houston and Los Angeles are going to lose people. OK? They - people are going to die - according to the EPA, people are going to die from lowering these standards.

HERSHER: Honeycutt was the top state toxicologist in Texas. And he wanted his fellow Texans to know that in his expert opinion, new federal air pollution standards were dangerous.

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HONEYCUTT: I'm not political. I'm a scientist. I can back everything I say up with data.

HERSHER: But his critics say he cherry-picks his data.

ELENA CRAFT: He misrepresents the science. Pollution is not good for your health.

HERSHER: Elena Craft is the senior health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas. She says Honeycutt's comments on air pollution are outside the scientific consensus. And more generally, when research suggests something is a health hazard, she's found his first reaction is often doubt.

CRAFT: His positions generally are totally inconsistent with mainstream thinking. There's just never enough evidence to persuade him on environmental issues.

HERSHER: It's not just air pollution. In 2011, he split with the American Association of Pediatrics when he told Congress he thought the EPA was being overly cautious about toxicity of mercury in fish. Or take this congressional hearing in 2015 - he's talking about ozone, part of smog that irritates people's lungs, especially if you have asthma.

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HONEYCUTT: The EPA does not predict that a decrease in the ozone standard will cause a statistically significant decrease in asthma attacks.

HERSHER: The EPA didn't respond to multiple requests to interview Honeycutt. Luke Metzger of the advocacy group Environment Texas has watched Honeycutt in action for 17 years.

LUKE METZGER: Almost every time there's a public concern about pollution, he says there's nothing to worry about. Almost every time industry takes a position against stronger health protections, he takes their side and contorts the science to advocate for doing nothing. And he just doesn't have any credibility anymore.

HERSHER: A 2014 investigation by the independent outlet the Center for Public Integrity found Honeycutt's regulatory opinions routinely reflect the opinions of industry. But some experts say Honeycutt's scientific analyses are sound. Ivan Rusyn is the chair of the interdisciplinary toxicology program at Texas A&M University and a longtime colleague of Honeycutt's in academic toxicology circles.

IVAN RUSYN: I think everyone is entitled to their views and opinions. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a regulator, as a scientist, as a colleague.

HERSHER: He points out regulating toxic stuff is hard. The dangers to humans aren't always clear, and there's sometimes room for legitimate differences of opinion. Honeycutt is just being cautious. And he thinks Honeycutt's experience as a state regulator prepares him to lead the EPA's Science Advisory Board.

RUSYN: Dr. Honeycutt's biggest strength is his experience in regulatory science and in converting data into decisions.

HERSHER: And there are a lot of big decisions coming up for the EPA. The Science Advisory Board will likely weigh in on national chemical safety rules and rolling back regulations on coal-fired power plants in the coming months. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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