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The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology subpoenaed data last month from a Harvard School of Public Health study that has been used to justify nearly two decades of Environmental Protection Agency regulations on air pollution.
The researchers who authored the 1993 study—Douglas W. Dockery of HSPH and C. Arden Pope III of Brigham Young University—have refused to disclose the data, asserting concerns about the privacy of the study’s 8,000 subjects and citing a history of scientific analyses that have produced similar findings. But the Committee may eventually demand that Harvard release the information.
The government-funded, peer-reviewed study, which concluded that air pollution “contributes to excess mortality in certain U.S. cities,” has been a target of politicians opposed to pollution restrictions. According to the Boston Globe, the subpoena is the first filed by the Science, Space, and Technology Committee in 21 years and was approved on a party-line vote, with all Republican committee members voting in its favor.
The HSPH study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, additionally addresses a 1995 American Cancer Society study, also authored by Pope, that ties air pollution to a higher rate of emergency room visits.
A Committee aide said in an emailed statement that data the EPA uses to support its regulations should be subject to review by Congress. The aide also stressed that the Committee has promised to keep the data private and work with the EPA to ensure that subjects remain anonymous.
The EPA missed the subpoena’s August 19 deadline to disclose the study’s data. Committee chairman and Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith told the Globe that he will pursue further action if the EPA does not comply by the end of September, which could include a subpoena issued to Harvard.
Dockery, now the chair of the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH, said in an email that while he and his colleagues are generally in favor of open access, they are wary of releasing any information that could identify individuals.
“Public release of the personal data of people who have volunteered to participate in these studies is unethical and would undermine all future research involving human subjects,” Dockery wrote.
Pope, who was at Harvard when the study was published, agreed, noting that the release of private data violates both confidentiality agreements with research participants and mandates from institutional review boards.
The study’s findings, Pope said in an email to The Crimson, have also been “reproduced, replicated, extended, and documented in multiple peer-reviewed publications” in the two decades since it was published.
Pope additionally stated that data from the study has been made available for independent data audits. A 1997 review by the EPA-funded nonprofit Health Effects Institute, which was allowed use of the data after the Institute pledged to keep it private, validated the results of the study.
Harvard’s Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Kevin Casey, who lobbies members of congress on behalf of Harvard, said in an email that the University has complied with every request for the study’s data that it has received from the EPA.
“Unfortunately, due to the ease with which one could potentially identify participants by linking the personal health information we have collected with death records, this is not a simple matter,” Casey added.
Science and Technology Committee Republicans have said that they want to ensure the study’s validity, but others claim that the subpoena was filed for other reasons.
Harvard Kennedy School professor Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist, said that the subpoena was “driven by ideology more than science” and serves as “just another manifestation of the highly polarized political climate” that now surrounds environmental policy.
“More information about the science is not going to change anyone’s minds,” Stavins said.
—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @NikitaKansra.
—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @syweinstock.
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