The EPA is good for our health
As I reflected on last month’s Earth Day and the current attack by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I considered what impact this agency has had on the environment and the health of the nation.
The impact on the environment is easier to see. When the first Earth Day was celebrated April 22, 1970, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was a poster child for the problems the environment faced. Draining northeastern Ohio including the industrial centers of Akron and Cleveland, the Cuyahoga was so polluted it caught fire in 1969. If ever there was a “dead” river, the Cuyahoga was it.
The EPA was established in December 1970 and following that a wide range of environmental regulations were passed by Congress, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (commonly called the Clean Water Act).
What is the result of 45 years of environmental regulation? The Cuyahoga is now the centerpiece of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The main water quality concern on the river currently is bacterial levels from storm water runoff and sewer overflows, not toxic and flammable chemicals. Bald eagles now nest there and feed their young from this formerly “dead” river.
The EPA’s enforcement of environmental regulations also had human health impacts. While people can debate how much illness has been prevented, even with regulation the health impact of current pollution is staggering.
Individuals with respiratory and cardiovascular disease can have exacerbations of their illnesses when air pollution is bad. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that about 200,000 U.S. individuals annually die prematurely because of air pollution effects.
A Cornell University 2007 study noted that about 3 million tons of toxic chemicals are released into the environment that have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects and have other health impacts.
I have yet to run into someone who tells me: “I am against regulating substances that cause cancer or birth defects or premature death.” So why would some want to hamstring the EPA?
The reason is that politicians come under enormous pressure from industries that have to foot the cost of functioning in an environmentally sound manner. Industries claim these regulations force them to close factories and move to countries with less stringent environmental standards. This leads to the call for the elimination of “job-killing” environmental regulations and the EPA.
Trying to sort out the truth is difficult because many studies funded by industry or environmental groups emphasize the costs or benefits to their advantage. One of the most balanced studies came from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD Working Paper # 1176, 2014) which found that when comparing the stringency of various nations’ environmental policies and their productivity growth, tight environmental policies had little effect on national aggregate productivity. Some industries benefited while some were hurt, but overall it balanced out.
Prior to the environmental regulations put in place over the last 45 years, the health and environmental burdens of pollution were paid by individuals whose health was impacted and by the government as a whole when trying to provide essentials like clean drinking water. Environmental regulations since 1970 basically held industries responsible for the cost of their actions.
Current efforts to curb the EPA and environmental regulations seeks to transfer the cost of pollution and environmental degradation back to the public with the only likely beneficiaries being the stockholders of polluting firms.
If you think the health of individuals and the environment should be the top consideration in developing environmental policy and funding levels of the EPA, now is the time to write your congressional representatives and the president. Just because it is funded in the stop-gap budget bill just passed, doesn’t mean it will not be targeted in September.
Dr. Stephen Soltys is a retired professor emeritus and still teaches at SIU School of Medicine on a voluntary basis.