The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a public health agency. There are many examples of the EPA’s accomplishments in improving public health. Two examples are the massive municipal infrastructure investments to eliminate the discharge of raw sewage and industrial wastewater into our waters, supplying safe drinking water to some 297 million, and reducing early deaths and hospital visits with cleaner air under the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1977. The annual economic benefits of these regulations are estimated to be $2 trillion by 2020 in public health and economic welfare.
Society fails to see the connection between public health and health care costs — the United States continues to spend the most per person on health care in the world. We struggle to lower health care costs while Congress considers a 30 percent cut to the EPA budget, which would necessitate corresponding cuts to state environmental agencies.
The importance of the EPA’s role in improving public health and reducing economic costs can be illustrated by studying lead. Lead is a toxic heavy metal designated as a probable human carcinogen. It is especially problematic to children, born and unborn. In addition to its many adverse health effects, the most horrifying effect of lead is its attack on the developing brains of children. Childhood exposure to lead has been linked to reduced IQ, ADD and lower academic achievement. Childhood lead exposure has also been linked to increases in violent crime. There is no safe level of lead in the environment. Because of children’s vulnerability to pollutants such as lead, the EPA has historically focused on their protection.
Lead is not just a historical pollutant from manufacturing and from consumer products including paint for toys and cribs, house paint and gasoline additive. Lead continues to be emitted from manufacturing and the burning of coal. Lead was and is still routinely emitted into air, discharged into water, landfilled and released inside our homes. These multiple exposure pathways result in one of the most widespread public health exposures known.
We have long known the adverse health effects of lead on children, yet throughout the 20th century we greatly increased our use of lead. Damages to public health from the manufacture and use of lead were borne by society, not by manufacturers. There were no regulations because governments were unable and/or unwilling to act.
In 1970, with the passage of the Clear Air Act and creation of the EPA, pollution control was nationalized under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and with bipartisan support. Subsequent enabling laws sought to protect public health from lead exposure. Between 1970 and 2011, nationwide lead emissions decreased by 99.6 percent. Laws were also enacted to mandate EPA action to remove lead from drinking water, reduce discharges to freshwaters and oceans, and to clean-up contaminated soil and groundwater. Yet, lead, being an element, remains in the environment continuing its assault on children’s health. Numerous studies have verified the continued presence of high concentrations in lead in urban soils, including in Maine.
In spite of great achievements, given the vulnerability of children and our past disregard for their physical and mental health, we desperately need the EPA to continue researching the health effects of lead and other serious pollutants and reduce their damage to our children and future generations. The response from the Trump administration is to propose a reduction of more than 30 percent in the EPA’s budget, including cuts to funding for scientific research and assessment of toxic substances.
If we truly cared about public health and our children’s health, we should expand, not gut the agency. Yes, there are some poorly written regulations, but let’s improve them — not simply delete them.
Attacks continue on science and environmental and public health protection. We should apply Yankee common sense — accepting that we have the most expensive per person health costs in the world, the smarter approach is to focus on prevention. In the case of lead, reducing exposure also reduces the economic costs of reduced IQs, mental health issues, and violent crime. It is also morally the right thing to do.
Travis Wagner is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
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