Why Honeycutt Is Such an Alarming Choice for EPA's Science Advisory Panel
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.
#EPA to Limit Independent Science Advisors https://t.co/ea0aN9q1P3 @NRDC @SierraClub @MichaelEMann @ClimateNexus @350 @foe_us @greenpeaceusa— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1509464847.0
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.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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