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Top EPA Science Adviser Has History Of Questioning Pollution Research

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 6:58 pm

In 2015, the top toxicologist for the state of Texas, Michael Honeycutt, was interviewed on Houston Public Radio. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency was pushing for tighter limits on ozone, a type of air pollution that is hazardous for people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

But Honeycutt said reducing air pollution could be dangerous.

"Houston and Los Angeles are going to lose people. People are going to die," he said. "According to EPA, people are going to die from lowering these standards," he continued, referring to the proposed tightening of ozone regulations.

Now, Honeycutt is the top science advisor for the EPA, a position that gives him potentially broad influence over how scientific data is incorporated into EPA policy. But many scientists say his comments on ozone and air pollution are one indication that he's a poor choice for the position.

"He misrepresents the science. Pollution is not good for your health," says Elena Craft, the senior health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas.

Craft has known Honeycutt for at least a decade — they have sat side-by-side giving Congressional testimony on pollution science — and she says Honeycutt's comments on air pollution are outside the scientific consensus.

For example, his 2015 comments on ozone were misleading, she says. He cited data from an appendix of a massive EPA ozone analysis that found ozone levels in some particularly polluted neighborhoods could temporary increase as the overall amount of air pollution decreased. However, he did not mention that once the amount of air pollution dropped below a certain level, the EPA predicted ozone would drop as well, providing long-term health benefits to the people in those areas.

"His positions generally are totally inconsistent with mainstream thinking. There's just never enough evidence to persuade him on environmental issues," Craft says. "It's frightening, honestly."

Honeycutt has broken with mainstream scientific opinion on other toxicology issues as well. In 2011, he split with the American Association of Pediatrics when he told Congress he thought the EPA was being overly cautious in its regulation of mercury.

"Methyl mercury is a toxic chemical, but the scientific data overwhelmingly do not support EPA's position on the health risk of mercury," Honeycutt wrote in response to questions from one of the congressional committee members.

In the same testimony, Honeycutt criticized the EPA for overstating the health hazards posed by hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by Erin Brockovich, as well as formaldehyde and arsenic.

"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," says Luke Metzger, state director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, who has watched Honeycutt in action for 17 years. "He just doesn't have any credibility anymore."

A 2014 investigation by the independent outlet the Center for Public Integrity found Honeycutt's regulatory opinions routinely reflect the opinions of industry, and under his leadership, Texas has loosened restrictions on dozens of chemicals. The president of the Texas Pipeline Association co-signed a letter of support for Honeycutt's nomination to the EPA science advisory board.

But some experts say Honeycutt's scientific analyses are sound, and that he is well-suited to advise the EPA.

"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," says Ivan Rusyn, the chair of interdisciplinary toxicology program at Texas A&M University, and a longtime colleague of Honeycutt's in academic toxicology circles.

He points out regulating pollution and chemicals is complex, in part because the data available to regulators often comes from studies on mice and rats, and not everyone agrees on how to assess the overall health risks for humans. There is sometimes room for legitimate differences of opinion among scientists.

"Dr. Honeycutt's biggest strength is his experience in regulatory science and converting data into decisions," says Rusyn. "Mike's experience, Mike's familiarity with the issues, and the way that he was able to implement clarity and transparency within the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] will serve the science advisory board and the EPA very well."

In a press release after his new position was announced, Honeycutt wrote, "It is my goal to direct the other members of the [Science Advisory Board] to bring sound science to the reviews that we will make in advising the administrator." In the coming months, Honeycutt and the rest of the science advisory board will likely weigh in on national chemical safety rules and rolling back regulations on coal-fired power plants.

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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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "BOOK COVERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.