Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Data Quality Act Again: The Issue that Sounds Very Boring, But Gets Scarier and Scarier All The Time

I've written a number of times before (here, here, and here) about the effects of the Data Quality Act on workplace health and safety and the environment. Now, in addition to distorting the process of peer review to allowing only industry "peers" to review studies important for regulation, and challenging evidence that asbestos is dangerous, the White House is attempting to use the Data Quality Act to "decide what and when the public would be told about an outbreak of mad cow disease, an anthrax release, a nuclear plant accident or any other crisis."

After the recent news that the White House intervened to tone down EPA's post 9/11 toxic dust warnings, this news does nothing to reassure us that we are in safe hands with this government.

According to the St. Louis Dispatch,
The White House Office of Management and Budget is trying to gain final control over release of emergency declarations from the federal agencies responsible for public health, safety and the environment.

The OMB also wants to manage scientific and technical evaluations - known as peer reviews - of all major government rules, plans, proposed regulations and pronouncements.

Currently, each federal agency controls its emergency notifications and peer review of its projects.
What's the problem with this? Twenty former top agency officials have sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget asking the agency to withdraw the proposal. According to one of the signers, former assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the Department of Energy David Michaels:
It goes beyond just having the White House involved in picking industry favorites to evaluate government science. Under this proposal, the carefully crafted process used by the government to notify the public of an imminent danger is going to first have to be signed off by someone weighing the political hazards.
And for another excellent summary of how the White House is using the Data Quality Act to distort the process of peer review, and why that's a very bad idea, read this article by Chris Mooney.

Mooney concisely summarizes why this issue is so important to the White House and its corporate underwriters:
The trouble is that peer review comes in many forms, and the devil is in the details. For instance, while scientific journals can usually take their time in peer reviewing article submissions, serious consequences may result from hampering the ability of federal regulatory agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, to make science-based determinations. Similarly, while academic peer review merely affects individual reputations, the peer review of government regulatory information implicates the economic fortunes of numerous major corporations--especially big polluters who want environmental and public health rules softened. These companies would love to influence scientific determinations made by agencies that regulate them, and have plenty of money at their disposal for lobbying and litigation. Any attempt to change the current system of regulatory peer review thus has major economic and political implications.
That's it in a nutshell, but read the entire article. Then figure out a way to translate all of this into language that scare the hell out of your average Joe and Jane walking down the street wondering who to vote for next November.