By Elena Craft
Michael Honeycutt—the man set to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) prestigious Science Advisory Board—has spent most of his career as a credentialed counterpoint against almost anything the EPA has proposed to protect human health.
Fortunately, his lone voice for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rarely carried beyond the Lone Star State. Until now.
The EPA science advisory panel Honeycutt will chair is supposed to provide the agency with independent scientific expertise on a wide range of issues. In a highly unusual move, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt picked the Texan for the job even though he has never been a member of the board.
More than Honeycutt's inexperience, however, what worries me most is his faulty logic and what this means for science at the EPA.
Honeycutt downplays ozone dangers
A toxicologist by training, Honeycutt has criticized the EPA's health-based standards for ozone because "most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors," reducing their exposure to the ubiquitous pollutant.
Houston residents know differently. The city's worst day for lung-damaging ozone this year happened while many people were outside for long hours of cleanup after Hurricane Harvey.
Honeycutt doubled-down on his position that ozone is not harmful to human health in a 2014 interview with the Texas Tribune.
"I haven't seen the data that says lowering ozone will produce a health benefit," he said. "In fact, I've seen data that shows it might have a negative health benefit."
Honeycutt's statement suggests he believes that more air pollution might actually be good for you.
… even though ozone can cause premature death
I am a toxicologist in Texas, too, and here is the truth about ozone: The pollutant can exacerbate asthma, lung disease and heart disease—and even lead to premature death.
The current acceptable limit, recommended during the George W. Bush administration and set under Obama's in 2015, is 70 parts per billion, a standard that the public health community still believes is too high. The EPA's own science advisors had recommended a limit as stringent as 60 ppb to protect human health.
Honeycutt spent millions to refute science
In his Texas role, Honeycutt responded to the recommendation by paying more than $2.6 million for research that says tighter ozone rules would cost the state billions of dollars annually with little or no impact on public health.
"Every part per billion that they don't lower it is millions of dollars," Honeycutt told the Houston Chronicle. "So we think that the return on investment in this is just phenomenal. Just phenomenal."
And it's not just ozone that seems to be a target for Honeycutt. He also has issues with protections against mercury, particulate matter and air toxics.
The reality is, however, that by failing to improve air quality, we're paying more in health and social costs. This is real money lost on hospital visits, and on missed work and school days.
… and now he'll steer EPA science
All this matters because Honeycutt, as the board's chair, will help prioritize which issues the EPA decides to investigate. He will also pick the scientists who review studies and reports before they come to the full board.
We know that clean air and a strong economy go hand-in-hand—and that claims by industry doomsayers claims are unsubstantiated.
But none of that matters to an administration that scrubs qualified scientists from serving on advisory committees, that eradicates scientific data from websites that do not support the its agenda, and that does not want to be challenged.
Honeycutt's appointment is yet another attack against science. With American health at stake, we cannot stay silent about this latest EPA development.
Elena Craft is a senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund.