Epidemiologist James Enstrom’s appointment ended today because his research on air pollution did not align with the department mission and failed to reach funding requirements, according to a June 9 layoff notice from Richard Jackson, environmental health sciences department chair.
Enstrom contended that the short explanation given for his nonreappointment is invalid and filed an appeal on Friday.
“When (people) make an outrageous statement like my research isn’t aligned with the mission of the department … it’s patently false,” said Enstrom, who has worked at UCLA’s School of Public Health for more than 34 years.
The stated mission of the department is to study the relationship between environment and health, according to its website.
Citing the confidentiality of personnel issues, various representatives from the School of Public Health did not comment on the matter but emphasized that the potentially controversial content of Enstrom’s research was not the reason for his layoff.
“The nature of research results, political views or popularity are not appropriate factors and are not considered when evaluating individuals for reappointment,” said Hilary Godwin, associate dean of academic programs in the School of Public Health, in a written statement.
Held in suspense
James Enstrom is anxiously anticipating this day, yet hoping for his circumstances to change.
Jackson notified Enstrom he would be laid off on Feb. 10, when funding for his position would end in April. In May, the department faculty voted against his reappointment, Enstrom said. On June 9, he received a second layoff notice that extended his term to June 30.
Enstrom wrote to Linda Rosenstock, dean of the School of Public Health, arguing that he was not given the expected 60-day notice before being laid off and that funding actually did exist to support his position, contrary to Jackson’s explanation. Enstrom’s term was extended, but only until Aug. 30.
His multiple layoff notices all cite that his research is not aligned with the department’s mission.
The details of research
Enstrom, who describes himself as a loner, has created unexpected ripples in the world of academia with his divergent research in air pollution.
He believes that as a result of publicizing his work, his department has responded by refusing his reappointment as a researcher.
In particular, his research on fine particulate air pollution in California implies that miniscule diesel particles do not have a significant effect on mortality.
His findings contradict conventional wisdom and other studies, which contend that this type of air pollution causes thousands of deaths each year.
“There’s plenty of data from other studies that show this is pretty dangerous,” said Dr. John Telles, a member of the California Air Resources Board, a government agency working to protect air quality.
The controversy over his research refers to his work on fine particulate air pollution, which refers to dirt, soot, chemicals and other particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.
Enstrom’s studies have shown that California’s mixture of chemicals in the air is different from that of the East Coast, but national standards remain based on the conditions in the East, said Robert Phalen, who directs the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at UC Irvine and has known Enstrom for years.
“For us (in California) to try to meet the national standard is very, very costly, and Enstrom’s study implies that it will not improve public health,” Phalen said.
As Phalen explained, California’s air is cleaner mainly because electricity is generated using oil, rather than coal. Most of the particulate matter in California air is natural and not as toxic, such as dust and dirt. In the East, particulate matter is more toxic because it includes coal, soot and other metals.
But standards passed down from the Environmental Protection Agency are uniform nationwide, making it more difficult and expensive for California to meet these conditions.
“The analogy I can think of is, let’s say you’re a person that’s really overweight and someone says, “˜Lose 30 pounds.’ That’s the way (the air) is kind of back East,” Phalen said. “Now let’s say you’re a person who weighs 90 pounds and you have to have a national standard and you have to lose 30 pounds. That’s going to be bad.”
The price of pollution
Whereas tightened requirements might force states in the East to clean up certain fuels, California may not have the same toxic materials in the air. Thus, the state has to find other particles to clean up in order to meet federal standards. Regulations in California are now clamping down on diesel trucks, since they produce more emissions than cars, Phalen said.
The repercussions apply to businesses across the state, as they are required to fit their trucks with filters or buy new trucks.
Enstrom said there are many more studies supporting that these particles cause health damage but still argued that this public health finding is false, making these new expensive regulations unnecessary.
Enstrom defended his results, as UC Berkeley scientist Michael Jerrett has presented similar conclusions about the effect of fine particulate air pollution in California. Jerrett was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
Because Enstrom has tried to publicly highlight his results, he has stirred up far more attention than scientific research usually receives.
“I tried to help these businessmen, I don’t want to see these people going out of business,” Enstrom said. “I went out of my way to bring (this study) to the attention of a lot more people.”
Yet many other scientists have agreed with Telles, citing a number of published studies.
“The weight of evidence is yes, there is an effect,” said Shane Que Hee, a fellow professor in Enstrom’s department, speaking generally about diesel pollution. “There’s maybe a degradation in effects, but the effects are still present.”
Enstrom suspects his nonreappointment is in part a response to his investigation into the backgrounds of Hien Tran and John Froines, both of whom disputed his research findings. Enstrom discovered that Hien Tran, one of the lead CARB staffers who compiled a review on diesel mortality studies, had faked his doctorate degree from UC Davis.
Enstrom was also involved in removing Froines from the Scientific Review Panel, which advises CARB. Froines, another environmental health sciences professor, served on the panel for 26 years, Enstrom said. However, appointments were supposed to be limited to three years so a lawsuit was filed to enforce this rule. Froines thus had to leave the panel this year, Enstrom said.
Enstrom said he believes Froines used his weight in the department to force Enstrom’s nonreappointment.
After multiple requests, Froines still declined to comment.
In addition to exposing Tran and Froines, Enstrom advocated for his research, regardless of the numerous studies stating that these tiny particles do make a difference on human health.
“Science isn’t based on how many people vote on something, it’s based on the truth, and the truth can be determined by just one scientist,” Enstrom said.
Enstrom believes he has upset a number of people in his department, as they have done research on these topics, and because he took it upon himself to make it a publicized issue.
The School of Public Health strongly maintains that research results are not part of the reappointment process.
Enstrom remains concerned about the outcome of truck regulations on business owners ““ one of the primary reasons he took up this battle.
Additionally, he described worry for faculty members’ degree of freedom in expressing honest thoughts and research results, if this type of response is the result.
“It’s sad that (the department) has chosen this approach to not allow a divergent point of view. They’re not going to tolerate dissent to the level I’ve generated it,” Enstrom said.
More than 20 California legislators have signed a letter to Chancellor Gene Block, highlighting their concerns about Enstrom’s situation.
Enstrom is in discussion with administration officials and is waiting for the results of his appeal.