Fact Check: Does A Science Board Chairman Say U.S. Air is “Too Clean”?
TL;DR : MOSTLY TRUE
Claim & Background
On November 3rd, 2017, media organization The Hill tweeted an article with the caption “New chairman of Trump EPA science board says air quality in the US is too clean.”
The Hill’s article “EPA names industry, state officials to advisory boards" said:
“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overhauled its external advisory boards Friday with new members representing various regulated industries and states, among other entities…. Some of the new advisers have controversial scientific views, including one who believes air quality is too clean for children, while the new members include multiple climate change skeptics…. Robert Phalen of the University of California, Irvine is a new science board member. He has argued that current air quality in the United States is too clean for ‘optimum health.’”
This is certainly a bizarre claim to make, especially when pollution and climate change are oft-discussed topics. So how and why has this Robert Phalen allegedly argued “the air is too clean”?
An article from July 2012, appearing on the AAAS (The American Association for the Advancement of Science) website, holds more details. It is, however, somewhat up for interpretation—because there aren't enough direct quotes. Some context is missing, but the AAAS member spotlight does hold more context than the article published by The Hill.
The AAAS writeup begins with:
“It was nearly 40 years ago when the mess with the oil embargo started the whole thing—the fear of killer smog that led to the hiring of Robert Phalen to help California create policies to regulate the stuff in the air…. Policymakers were planning to move from oil to coal for energy.”
It seems these policymakers were worried that switching to coal could be deadly. Phalen did some research, and apparently concluded that Southern California was polluted to the point of having some benefits: “...the air chemistry triggered a lung defense that lessened the injury to the bronchial tree.”
A research paper for this was published in January 1979. It’s similar to research which says exposure to allergens can bolster the immune system. For example, a 2012 article in TIME magazine quoted Finnish pediatrician Dr. Eija Bergroth as saying “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them.” Robert F. Phalen appears to be saying it’s detrimental if the air is overly pure, because then our bodies wouldn’t be prepared for a sudden influx of air pollution. Whether or not people agree with this controversial statement, it’s less crazy than randomly hearing "hey guys, our air is too clean." It's closer to "small amounts of pollution can be like vaccinations for our lungs." (Whether or not this is actually true, that's another story entirely. Air particle inhalation is admittedly outside my area of expertise.)
In addition, Phalen likely doesn't believe all pollutants are equal. After his late-70s research posited that exposure to ozone (O3) could help the body defend against ozone, he continued to look into the topic. Exposure to some pollutants didn't help at all, according to research he published in October 1982, August 1983, and so on. Robert F. Phalen published more than 100 scientific papers between 1970 and 2016.
Robert F. Phalen will be a speaker at the upcoming “America First Energy Conference,” an event sponsored by the controversial Heartland Institute. A portion of their website mentions that Phalen has advised the EPA at least once, although it’s not clear when or in what capacity. A draft document from the Committee on Science, Space, & Technology website shows that in 2011, Phalen was involved with the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).
Phalen has been quoted as saying "My most important role in science is causing trouble and controversy." It's therefore possible he makes outlandish statements for the sake of making them.
The initial claim (does a Trump science board chairman say U.S. air is “too clean”?) is MOSTLY TRUE.
- An appointee to a scientific advisory board did say that U.S. air was “too clean,” in the sense that he believes exposure to some pollutants can help the human body protect itself from those pollutants. This is based firstly on scientific research he conducted in the late 1970s.
- The appointee will be a member of the advisory board and not the "chairman.”
- He was not appointed by, nor will he directly advise, President Donald Trump.
- This will not be the appointee's first time advising the EPA, because he had done so during the Obama Administration (2011).