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Pollution research: Foul air in Washington

When scientific research prompts an effort to regulate health hazards in the environment, opponents shouldn’t presume that the researchers involved have misused or misinterpreted data. Yet US Representative Lamar Smith insinuated just that in his efforts to subpoena data from a landmark 1993 Harvard study commonly cited by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Texas Republican, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is seeking raw data from research known as the Harvard Six-Cities study, which tracked the health of 8,000 people and established a link between air pollution and disease. Consistent with scientific protocols on research involving human subjects, and with medical privacy standards, the raw data in the Harvard study and a separate 1995 American Cancer Society study targeted by Smith have been kept largely confidential to conceal the identities of participants. Smith, a critic of clean-air regulations, has raised the specter of “secret science.” The charge is deeply unfair. Without privacy protections, patients and doctors would be less willing to participate in studies, and institutional review boards — which exist to prevent scholars from engaging in research that harms participants — would be less likely to approve those studies.


Besides, the Harvard study has already been subjected to outside review. A panel jointly funded by the EPA and the auto industry received access to the raw data for the Harvard and American Cancer Society studies and upheld the original findings. It’s simply not the case that researchers have withheld their information from all outside scrutiny.

Yet the studies are running up against a cynical tendency in Washington political circles — especially GOP circles — to view all information through a political lens. If the Harvard study has been used to support regulations that industry groups and the House GOP opposes, the logic goes, then there must be something wrong with the research.

Reasonable people can disagree on what to do with the findings of the Harvard study; one might argue that the EPA regulations are too burdensome a response. But that wouldn’t make the original research wrong. If Smith and others think the Harvard study was off the mark, they should be pushing for additional, more authoritative research — rather than casting vague aspersions on two-decade-old research.