House Subpoenas Personal Medical Information in Continued Assault on Clean Air Policies

by Sam Abbott, 8/6/2013

On Aug. 2, the House Science Committee issued a subpoena demanding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) release all underlying data and personal medical information from two crucial studies the agency has relied on in setting air quality standards since 1997.

The main study at issue, called the Six Cities Study, was peer reviewed and originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. Researchers from Harvard tracked thousands of adult Americans over a 16-year period and concluded that there exists a "statistically robust association between air pollution and mortality." The study continues to influence EPA safeguards developed under the Clean Air Act.

The data from the Six Cities study has been partially available to researchers for decades, but the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), is demanding a full release from EPA, including the personal medical information the data contains. And all this when the EPA does not even possess the underlying data.

The House is also seeking medical data from a more recent American Cancer Society study. The subpoenas represent the House's latest retaliatory action against the EPA's efforts to enforce stronger air quality protections and combat the growing threat of climate change.

C. Arden Pope, an economist and one of the original authors of the Six Cities Study, has criticized the subcommittee's actions. Pope reminded the subcommittee that the complete data set was not released because doing so would "undoubtedly violate the confidentiality agreement made with [study] participants." The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), reiterated Pope's privacy concerns and, in a letter to Chairman Smith, questioned the intentions behind the subpoena:

"You have requested the personal medical histories of literally hundreds of thousands of American citizens. And for what purpose? There is no conceivable way that you or your staff could meaningfully use this data to refute the seminal health studies you seem preoccupied with attacking."

Johnson went on to call the subpoena "simply an attempt to harass the EPA."

Despite privacy concerns, Smith intends to share the full data with "independent scientists for review." Consumer protection advocates see this as a backdoor way of allowing industry-funded scientists the means and platform to challenge widely accepted scientific evidence. The tobacco industry has used similar tactics for decades with data collected by the American Cancer Society.

In 2006, the Harvard School of Public Health released a follow-up to the Six Cities Study, reaffirming the original researchers' conclusions and reporting "an association between people living longer and cities reducing the amount of…soot in their air." This not only shows that there is no need to challenge the Six Cities Study's findings, but it also indicates that the EPA's efforts to limit pollution and set cleaner air standards have been successful in saving the lives of thousands of Americans each year.

The subpoena by the House only serves to rehash a study whose conclusions have already been confirmed and hinders the EPA's ability to set scientifically justifiable safeguards that provided all Americans with clean, healthy air.

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