Science + Technology

Obscure Law Newest Obstacle to Protecting Environment and Health

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A tiny rider on a massive appropriations bill from late 2000has become a potent tool for fostering scientific uncertainty as a means todelay or block actions intended to protect the environment and health.

A commentary in the May 24 edition of the Journal of theAmerican Medical Association exposes how a two-sentence-long law, now known asthe Data Quality Act (DQA), provides a new mechanism enabling special intereststo delay the release and use of valid scientific research.

Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of theUCLA School of Public Health and author of the JAMA commentary, also warns ofthe potential chilling affect of the law on federal agencies who might chooseto self-censor valid information rather than deal with withering challengesfrom special interests.

"The full impact of the act is as yet unknown, but it hasalready resulted in the significant delay of the release and use of validscientific information," Rosenstock said. "This newtool, to date used primarily by those who have reason to silence or politicizeobjective scientific research, should be cause for great concern and seriousexamination."

The DQA was added to an appropriations bill late in the Clinton administration byRep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., without prior hearings or debate. The act directsthe federal Office of Management and Budget to develop policies and proceduresfor "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity ofinformation." It allows individuals or interest groups to request correction ofinformation released by an agency, in essence providing an administrativeprocess for challenging the quality of the science and information an agencyuses.

Among petitions under the DQA act:

-The American Chemistry Council challenged data used by theConsumer Product Safety Commission in its attempt to ban wood treated withheavy metals and arsenic in playground equipment.

-Sugar interests challenged the Agriculture Department andthe U.S. Food and Drug Administration over dietary recommendations curtailingsugar intake.

-The Salt Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commercechallenged the data on which the National Institutes of Health recommencedreduced salt intake.

-The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness and the Kansas CornGrowers Association challenged science used by the Environmental ProtectionAgency in its risk‑assessment of Atrazine, awidely used herbicide.

On its face, the DQA's mission toensure data quality and objectivity seems reasonable. In practice, thecommentary explains, the law as interpreted by political appointees in anadministration open to helping thwart public policy has had significant,although still not fully realized, consequences.

"What is new in the attacks on science in the last fiveyears is the success in securing and using new tools to magnify or even inventscientific uncertainty, with the consequence of tilting even further theadvantage to vested interests," Rosenstock said."These successes have been aided and amplified by the extraordinary shiftwithin an executive branch playing an active hand in undermining its ownscience and scientists."

In addition to serving as dean, Rosenstockis a professor of environmental health sciences inthe UCLA School of Public Health and professor of medicine in the David Geffen Schoolof Medicine at UCLA. Before coming to UCLA, she served as director ofthe National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health from 1994 through2000.

The UCLA School of Public Health is dedicated to enhancingthe public's health by conducting innovative research, training future leadersand health professionals, translating research into policy and practice, andserving local, national and international communities. For more information,see http://www.ph.ucla.edu/.

-UCLA-

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