Making a case for the EPA – saving lives through regulations

From climate change denial to the rise of ‘alternative facts’ (which, just so that we’re all clear, is another name for ‘lie’), not to mention the widening gulf between scientists and public opinion, it’s hard times being a scientist. Earlier this week, President Trump instated a freeze on all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and contracts, started a media blackout, ordered the removal of the EPA’s climate change webpage, and will start a review all EPA scientists’ work on a case-by-case basis.

As Toxic Musings is a blog concerned with all things in environmental toxicology – it would be irresponsible of me to ignore this issue, considering the important role the EPA plays in conducting and funding toxicology research throughout the country.

The EPA is tasked with protecting natural resources that are required for the public to live healthy lives, from the land, to the water, to the air. None of these resources are partisan issues. Clean air and safe drinking water is not a ‘coastal elite’ conspiracy. Pollution harms human health across party lines. So why is the EPA such a vilified agency? What’s the deal?

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Smog is a direct result of air pollution and can significantly impact human health. Extreme smog events have even lead to widespread death, like the Great Smog Event in London in 1952, which lasted for 4 days and was so severe, that over 12,000 people died while over 100,000 people got severely sick from inhaling it.

Yes, industry lobbyists have done a good job painting the EPA as some power hungry agency hell bent on destroying the American economy through fines and unnecessary regulations (not true) and yes, some people have it in their heads that environmental protection necessarily comes at the cost of economic growth (not true), and yes, people don’t like it when the government tells them not to do things (…okay, true). But I think that there are a lot of people out there who would really appreciate the EPA, if only they knew the real impact it has on their (actual) lives.

Because, as it turns out, the EPA saves lives. Not in heroic, bursting through fiery buildings or arresting criminals sort of ways, but through a more subtle approach. The EPA protects human health by passing environmental regulations, preventing diseases you didn’t realize you might have developed and saving lives that you didn’t even realize were at risk. And this is why the EPA matters.

Let’s just take air pollution as an example. The EPA regulates the emissions of 6 major air pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Lots of studies have shown that these pollutants are closely tied to all sorts of health issues, including respiratory diseases (bronchitis, asthma, etc.), heart diseases, cancer, and even death.

But by regulating the amount of pollutants that any one car, building, or industrial plant can release, the EPA is able to limit the extent of those health problems. And it’s working – emissions of priority pollutants are steadily decreasing in nearly all areas of the country for the decade, which has real human health benefits! It’s estimated that by 2010, EPA regulations had cut particulate matter air pollution enough to save almost 160,000 people’s lives. By 2020, it could be as many as 230,000 lives saved. Unfortunately, that figure could be a lot smaller if the EPA is gutted following President Trump’s plan. That’s what’s at stake if the EPA is lost to partisan politics – 70,000 additional lives. And that’s with just particulate matter – not to mention the millions of people who are or will become ill with diseases from particulate matter, as well as other pollutants.

Particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions of other pollutants like lead, ozone, and carbon monoxide, have seen a steady decrease in the last decades due to environmental regulations put forth by the EPA, significantly improving environmental and human health.

Particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions of other pollutants like lead, ozone, and carbon monoxide, have seen a steady decrease in the last decades due to environmental regulations put forth by the EPA, significantly improving environmental and human health.

But what about the money? Air pollution related health costs can be staggering. For example, air pollution plays a large role in the severity of asthma attacks, which at times can seriously incapacitate people. This means increased medical bills (including medication and hospital visits) and loss of work hours, school days, or and restricted activity, altogether costing over $3000 per person every year. In total, the US spent over $56 billion in asthma related expenditures in 2007, and that’s just one of the many diseases linked to air pollution! Think of how the total costs bronchitis, chronic heart disease, or cancer would add on. But thanks to EPA regulations, reductions in air pollution and improved air quality have prevented over 1 million cases of severe asthma attacks by 2010, saving the economy untold amounts on pollution and health related costs. In fact, the health benefits of tight regulations greatly outweighs costs that might come with them.

Many people out there want you to think the EPA is bad for you, bad for the economy, and bad for the country. But your individual health is deeply connected to the health of the environment you live in, and while it may not be obvious, the EPA is working hard to save lives. Gutting the EPA will have real and dire consequences for people. Entire communities, those with low income, who live in poorer, more polluted and industrialized areas, those with high risk of health conditions and diseases are most at risk and have everything to lose without the EPA. The right to a healthy environment is pivotal to the American way, so call your representatives, your senators, your friends and family and fight for the EPA. Fight for a cleaner future.

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