In November 1971 the residents of Birmingham, Ala., feared for their lives when an atmospheric phenomenon known as an “inversion” trapped and concentrated industrial air pollutants in the city. Its residents were no strangers to industry’s air pollution—there are stories of people changing their white shirts after arriving at their offices because the shirts had turned black on the brief walk to work. This was the worst air pollution event residents had ever seen; Birmingham found itself in a health crisis.
The Jefferson County Health Department formally requested 23 major emitters of air pollution in Birmingham to reduce their emissions by 60 percent. This request went largely ignored, particularly by the largest emitters in the city. In the absence of state and local legal options the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and for the first time in the federal agency’s history. It invoked emergency powers under the Clean Air Act to take enforcement action to abate air pollution. In the following days a combination of lower air emissions from polluters and a change in the weather led to lower pollutant levels in Birmingham.
Scientists and medical doctors have long known air pollution is linked with lung and heart diseases leading to premature deaths and loss of life expectancy. This scientific evidence is in large part why air pollution regulations exist—to safeguard Americans’ health and safety. Indeed, scientific evidence has served as the bedrock of landmark laws to protect the public’s health, including the Clean Air Act; Consumer Product Safety Act; and Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act—to name just a few.
Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published the report, “The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damages Done, Lessons Learned and a Path to Progress,” which details a comprehensive list of attacks on science-based public safeguards during the administration’s first two years in office. Whereas these attacks have occurred across all agencies, many of them have occurred at the EPA. It is quite apparent that both science and the process by which the EPA uses science have been in this administration’s crosshairs since day one.
This administration has demonstrated a disdain for the EPA’s mission to protect Americans’ health. In October 2018 senior officials at the EPA disbanded two scientific advisory panels that provide guidance on the public health impacts of fine particulates and ozone in air. Today more than 124 million people in the U.S. live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone and more than 23 million live with harmful levels of particulates. Why would you disband panels so critical to protecting our health? Does the agency not remember its history? Does it not remember Birmingham?
Air pollution rollbacks already underway by this administration will increase premature deaths in the U.S. by up to 40,000 people annually, along with tens of thousands of lost work and school days because of illness. Air pollution controls are not the only protections being lost. During 2017 EPA leadership decided not to ban a deadly pesticide called chlorpyrifos—even though the agency’s own scientists had documented that a ban was needed to protect those exposed to the pesticide, especially children. In August 2018 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the EPA to ban the pesticide. The agency responded by asking the court to reconsider its ruling—in other words, it requested the court for permission to continue to harm children.
Political appointees at the EPA are doing more than attempting to roll back public safeguards instituted by the agency. They are also working to ensure scientific evidence cannot be considered in the future. In April 2018 the EPA proposed a rule entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” Despite this positive title, the proposal will prevent the EPA from using critical health studies unless the participants’ private health information is made publicly available. For example, under this proposed rule EPA decision makers could not use the landmark Harvard School of Public Health “Six Cities” study, which demonstrated the link between chronic air pollution exposure and risk of early death, to inform science-based air pollution policy. If scientific evidence can’t be used in rulemaking, this will surely result in more harm to people and the environment.
In another egregious affront to the protection of public health and the environment the EPA has proposed narrowing consideration of the benefits of its regulations. In other words, the agency is designing a cost-benefit approach in which the monetary costs imposed by regulations will often outweigh the prevention of diseases and premature deaths. This is not hyperbole. In the case of air emissions of the neurotoxin mercury the EPA is using this proposed approach to say the financial cost of requiring power plants to reduce their mercury emissions far outweighs any health benefits.
There is a new Congress that offers new opportunities to ensure scientific evidence and processes that protect our health are kept intact at federal agencies. UCS’s report details recommendations for Congress to use their power to hold the Trump administration and its agency leaders accountable for protecting public health and safety. The report also outlines many ways the scientific community and its supporters have effectively pushed back against these antiscience actions with success. Scientists have stood up to the attacks on science from this administration like never before, and their track record shows they are an unstoppable force once they get involved in the democratic process.
This is not 1970s Birmingham. A thick black cloud of smog shouldn’t be what it takes for the EPA to step in and do its job to protect public health and our environment. We have moved on from the past because scientific advancements have allowed us to better understand the conditions that allow us to live long and healthy lives. Science tells us there is more work to do to improve people’s lives—our air and water needs to be cleaner, we need to be prepared for the negative effects of climate change and there are lingering toxins in our environment that need to be cleaned up. This is why the EPA exists: to protect us and our environment; to ensure we live healthy, productive lives. The Trump administration needs to listen to the science and let the agency do its job. Lives literally depend on it.