A conservative environmental law group with a history of criticizing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), launched a new attack on the agency this week, releasing a trove of documents showing that the EPA experimented on young children with diesel fuel.
The Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), previously called the American Traditions Institute, is a political advocacy group with ties to the energy industry*. It has used public records laws liberally in the past to criticize climate scientists from environmental organizations like the EPA, the Sierra Club, and others.
The group used open public records laws to gather and then publish 172 pages of grant applications, progress reports, and research findings that shows that the EPA and National Institutes of Health funded studies conducted by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC), in which child volunteers were exposed to diesel soot particles.
The experiments took place from 2003 to 2010 at UCLA's Children's Environmental Health Center and UCLA's Immunology and Allergy Department under the supervision of a number of doctors including Frank Gilliland and David Diaz-Sanchez, neither of whom responded to requests for comment on this story.
For the research, the doctors administered a nasal spray containing "soot from a diesel truck (diesel exhaust particles)," according to consent forms signed by volunteers. The volunteers would then come back the next day and the researchers would test their nasal fluid to measure their response to the soot. The goal was to understand how adults and children reacted to diesel soot, according to the documents.
"The highest amount of particles you may be given is equal to two days' average urban exposure in Los Angeles," Diaz-Sanchez explained on the consent form. "This is less than you would receive from passing behind a diesel bus as it starts its engine."
E&E Legal condemned the way the researchers characterized the exposure to diesel, saying: "Despite that the EPA concluded inhaling diesel exhaust can cause death within hours and that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) concluded there is no safe exposure to diesel exhaust, the USC/UCLA researchers sprayed diesel exhaust up the noses of 20 children age 10 to 15 years of age."
"Not only has EPA been caught violating the letter and spirit of virtually every national and international code, law and regulation for the protection of human subjects in medical experiments developed since World War II," E&E said in a press release accompanying the documents, "but they have done so in shocking style, abusing the most vulnerable people of all, children."
UCLA issued a statement Friday saying it "is committed to pursuing research in an open, safe environment that follows all applicable university, state and federal regulations, including those of the funding agencies."
"The project involving pollution-enhanced allergic inflammation went through a rigorous Institutional Review Board (IRB) review," the statement said, "The IRB, which provided extra scrutiny required of research involving children, included appropriate medical expertise as well as the perspective of members who are not scientists and who are not affiliated with UCLA."
In addition to pointing out the "basic villainy" of the experiment, E&E Legal accused the EPA of violating the Nuremberg Code — a set of ethical principals on human experimentation and research — and accused the researchers of committing acts punishable by fines and imprisonment.
Despite the accusatory tone of the press release, the real reason E&E published the documents was to show the alleged hypocrisy of the EPA's diesel regulations on trucks and machinery, E&E's legal counsel David Schnare told VICE News.
"There's a disconnect at the EPA and it has to do with the kind of particulate matter you get out of diesel exhaust," Schnare said. "I honestly believe — and I worked at the EPA for 30 years — that most scientists don't think particulate matter is very dangerous stuff… the problem is if that's really true, then why is the EPA regulating businesses out of business and forcing regulations that will close down companies and alter irrevocably the diesel engine business?"
The EPA has enacted increasingly strict rules on diesel exhaust over the past decade. New, low-emissions engines and low-sulfur diesel fuel regulations were phased in between 2006 and 2010. The EPA rationalized the new regulations by pointing out the danger of diesel soot particulate matter to public health, particularly the health of children and the elderly.
"Diesel exhaust or diesel particulate matter [soot] is likely to cause lung cancer in humans. Other health effects include aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function," the agency wrote in a memo on the new standards in 2000.
"With both ozone and PM [particulate matter], children and the elderly are most at risk," it said. "These emission reductions will prevent 8,300 premature deaths, more than 9,500 hospitalizations, and 1.5 million work days lost."
The EPA criticized E&E's spin on the research, telling VICE News that it "very inaccurately" represents the study. A spokesperson also tried to clarify the EPA's position on diesel, saying that the research would help put the EPA "in a better position to understand and combat the problem" of sickness caused by pollution.
"A certain percentage of the population gets sick or is harmed by pollutants that the public is exposed to everyday," the EPA said in a statement. "The EPA grantee conducted research studies in which volunteers were exposed to amounts roughly equivalent to what people get every day in the outside world, isolating the component of interest under carefully controlled conditions, and learning about how pollution negatively impacts the body."
"The studies in question did not involve exposure to diesel exhaust, but rather minute amounts of soot particles," the EPA continued. "None of the subjects showed any adverse health consequences as a result of participating in this research, which was important in understanding how children differ from adults in producing natural chemicals (antioxidants) that protect against air pollution, and why some children develop allergies. All methods and results from these studies were peer-reviewed, published, and presented at professional conferences."
Schnare said that the EPA has two different policies for diesel, and urged the agency to lighten regulations on the diesel industry if diesel exhaust exposure really is safe for children, as was claimed by the agency.
"The EPA says these kinds of particulates can cause death within 24 hours, so we have to regulate them and push them to the lowest limits we can," he said.
Schnare said that burdensome diesel regulations from the EPA make it costly and sometimes impossible for average truckers or farmers to do their work, using the example of a farmer who can no longer afford a more expensive, low-emissions tractor to plow his fields. Of course, the regulations also affect the fuel industry.
"We estimate that when fully implemented, the sulfur reduction requirement will increase the cost of producing and distributing diesel fuel by about 4.5 to 5 cents per gallon," the EPA wrote in its memo on the new regulations. The agency also acknowledged that the new regulations would make trucks and buses more expensive, estimating an additional cost of $1,200 to $1,900 per new vehicle.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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* E&E Legal declined to discuss its funding sources with VICE News. The group's most recent tax filings do not list donors, though they show that in 2013 the group received $117,000 in donations and in 2012 received more than $500,000 in donations, which account for the most of the group's total income. The group's 2010 tax filing, however, does list donors to its previous name, the American Traditions Institute (prior to that it was the Western Traditions Institute, which began in Montana.) The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Lair Foundation, and Doug Lair are all listed as donors for ATI. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation has been funded in the past partly by Exxon, while Doug Lair is a Montana businessman who sold his petroleum company to one of the Koch brothers back in 1989. A 2012 Guardian article details other connections to the fossil fuel industry.