Environmentalists were outraged when the EPA decided to cut funding to children’s environmental health centers, but a report released Thursday argues that the program is awash with political activism and junk science.
The study by the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute found that the university-based centers, funded jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, promote weak associations between health risks and consumer products to advance “agenda-driven science.”
“Lost in this melee is the fact that these centers do not have a measurable impact on children’s health or add much to the body of research on the topic,” said Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Angela Logomasini. “In fact, many of the centers simply waste taxpayer dollars while funding junk science and environmental activism.”
Launched in 1998, the program funds 13 centers based at or affiliated with top universities such as Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, but the grants reportedly are drying up as the EPA seeks to remove the program from its budget.
The program has provided $300 million to the centers since its inception, including grants to another dozen centers that have not received federal funding in recent years. Annual grants averaged $15 million through 2017, but the EPA’s contribution dropped to $1.6 million in the current fiscal year.
“The 2014 Children’s Center grants were awarded to five recipients and funded incrementally from 2015-2019,” said an EPA spokesperson in an email. “EPA contributed $1.6 million for the centers for Fiscal Year 2019 as directed by Congressional appropriations. The 4-year award period for the NIEHS/EPA Children’s Centers expired August 31st, 2019.”
The spokesperson added: “EPA anticipates future funding opportunities that support EPA’s high priority research topics, including children’s health research.”
Alex Formuzis, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, blasted the CEI report. He said he would expect “nothing less from the flat Earth swarm at CEI” and called the grants “an extraordinarily wise use of taxpayer funds.”
“The program has produced invaluable research into the connections between toxic chemicals and asthma, ADHD, obesity, autism and cancer in children,” Mr. Formuzis said in an email. “The work of these children’s health centers has led to restrictions on the proximity of schools to major roadways in California, federal limits on arsenic levels in rice used to make baby food and New York City’s decision to phase out diesel buses.”
The CEI report argues that the centers have engaged in “statistical shenanigans” to draw shaky links between children’s health issues such as premature births, asthma and obesity, and trace chemicals in products and pesticides, with no mention of their public health benefits.
A brochure promoted by the 2017 NIEHS/EPA “Impact Report” advised against using flea and tick collars, without pointing out that fleas and ticks can transmit microbes that cause serious illnesses such as Lyme disease.
“Unfortunately, much of what the government is funding in the name of ‘children’s environmental health’ involves a seemingly endless web of weak studies cross-citing one another and then being cited as justification for government action,” said the report.
The “Impact Report” also credited the work of the Community Outreach Translation Core (COTC) at each center in conveying “basic research findings into intervention and prevention methods to enhance awareness among communities, health care professionals, and policymakers.”
In reality, the CEI study said, the “translation cores” often act as “a facade for engaging in environmental activism rather than advancing science or its application.”
“COTCs often start with ideologically derived, predetermined conclusions — sometimes related to the area of study and sometimes not — and then design outreach programs around those conclusions,” said the study. “The research component is secondary and tainted with bias; it has become little more than a smokescreen to legitimize activism.”
The effort to defund the centers has drawn some attention in Congress. In a March 2018 letter, 15 senators praised the centers’ work and said they have produced 2,500 publications on research identifying “the critical role environmental toxicants play” in childhood conditions and diseases.
The 2017 NIEHS/EPA report included a comment from Frank Gilliland, director of the University of Southern California Children’s Center: “We don’t do advocacy.”
“We conduct the science and provide it in a way that can empower both the communities and the policymakers to do something about it,” Mr. Gilliland said.
The CEI report argued that the Trump administration should go further by cutting the 50% share of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funding, which would eliminate all federal dollars for the centers, and raised concerns about recently announced plans for more “translation centers.”
“If these new centers turn out to be anything like the COTCs in the following case studies, which NIEHS already funds, we can expect them to simply spread scientific misinformation while engaging in political advocacy,” said the report.