Given the air pollution that plagues much of northern Utah, it's no surprise that freshman Rep. Chris Stewart made it a priority as the new chairman of an important House environment subcommittee.
Oh, but wait. Congressman Stewart isn't trying to figure out how he can help Utah clean up our air and make our families healthier. Rather, distressingly, he's turned to attacking the decades of highly regarded science showing a link between pollution, illness and death.
Stewart has been beating an old, tattered drum lately about the "EPA's secret science." It's a memorable phrase, but wildly inaccurate. The solid research that Stewart and dirty industry have spent years trying to undermine was actually conducted over decades by the nation's best public health researchers.
Many recent EPA safeguards that have led to significant improvements in our air quality are based on the milestone "Six Cities" research, launched in 1974. Several Harvard University physicians began studying 8,111 randomly selected individuals in six U.S. cities, from St. Louis and Topeka to smaller towns in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts.
Their challenge was to figure out the effects of air pollution on a large group, while controlling for other factors, such as if a subject smoked. Researchers not only used air quality monitoring stations in those cities, but some study subjects put air monitoring devices in their homes and some even wore them.
Those thousands of citizens were followed for 17 years. Then, in 1993, researchers published their first paper in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Findings showed that people who lived in less polluted areas were less likely to die of heart and lung diseases, especially lung cancer.
Those data were further scrutinized in many other studies all published in peer-reviewed journals. Most notably, a 2006, researchers did a follow-up study using the original cohort, with eight additional years of data. Once again, they found a strong link between air pollution, illness and death.
The EPA regularly cited the credible Six Cities research while implementing a series of safeguards: to reduce emissions from vehicle tailpipes and industry smokestacks. Not surprisingly, some industries fought back, seeking to discredit the research any way they could, demanding to see every shred of data.
The researchers however, declined, referencing an agreement with those 8,111 participants to keep all personal health records private. Seeking to satisfy critics, however, the EPA ordered an independent scientific review, subsequently taken on by the independent Health Effects Institute. Their three-year review reaffirmed all of the Six Cities findings: Cleaner air saves lives. Regulation works. Dirty air kills.
But, apparently, the many years of scrutiny, peer-reviewed publications and independent reviews have meant little to Chris Stewart. He persists in attacking solid evidence based findings, as "EPA secret science." He relentlessly subpoenas agency records. What's going on here?
While Stewart insists on targeting the EPA, he must know that the definitive Six Cities research was actually conducted by researchers from Harvard University and other leading scholars, including BYU economist C. Arden Pope, one of eight authors of the initial 1993 study.
And yes, Pope told Science magazine last week that handing over the Six Cities data would "undoubtedly violate the confidentiality agreement made with participants," something else that Stewart seems to ignore.
It's not clear whose water Stewart is carrying by denying that dirty air is dangerous. It's certainly not the families of northern Utah. As the congressman hosts town hall meetings later this month, we hope that Utahns will let him know that his tactics are dangerous, and are not our priorities. Stewart should represent us.
Mary Ellen Navas and Bob Archibald are co-chairs of the board of directors of HEAL Utah.