Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are thought to account for about 20% of the carbon in the universe (see here, here, and here) and are considered building blocks of life. On Earth, PAHs occur in organic matter, including fossil organic matter (oil, coal), and are constantly being made when organic matter is heated or decays. They are also constantly being destroyed – eaten by microorganisms, degraded by the sun, other natural processes.
PAHs cause headaches for both regulators and the regulated. The headaches are rooted, in part, in history, so this post is a brief introduction to the history of PAHs in the environment, with an example of a regulatory headache exacerbated by government scientists who misrepresented historical data.
Generally speaking, no one makes PAHs on purpose – they are just part of the raw materials and byproducts of modern life. In addition to being present in oil and coal, PAHs are made in wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, in engine lubricants, in compost heaps, in decaying plants in a swamp… wherever organic matter is heated. Thus, humans are now and have, since fire was tamed, been exposed to PAHs. As one researcher put it: Continue reading →
Federal agencies disseminate vast quantities of information that is not subject to public notice or comment, but often has the effect of regulation. A good example is the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decades-long recommendation to reduce dietary salt for better health. For over 40 years, Americans struggled to reduce salt intake, only to learn in 2013, after a comprehensive review commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control that, in fact, there is no evidence that reducing salt improves health outcomes. Indeed, the review suggested that more salt in the diet might be a good thing. Continue reading →
On November 19, 2014, the House of Representatives passed HR 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014. The bill would prohibit the US Environmental Protection Agency from regulations based on “science that is not transparent or reproducible.” Hooray! Reproducibility is the touchstone of science. Transparency is the way to ensure that scientists who want to reproduce another scientist’s results can try to do so. No scientist anywhere would argue against reproducibility, nor should any scientist argue that research results used to make regulatory decisions (such as drug approvals, emission limits, product bans) be exempt from transparency. Unfortunately transparency has not always been a priority. Examples of the current reproducibility crisis in the sciences can be found here, here, here, here and here. A requirement to use transparent, reproducible science should apply to all government agencies, not just EPA. The government need not replicate the science itself, just make sure the information needed for reproducibility is readily available. Just one of the many examples from the pavement coatings industry’s decade-long effort to obtain data from the US Geological Survey illustrates the point. Continue reading →