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?


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.

The early bird gets the quantum dots

Earthworms are kind of a big deal for environmental scientists. As it turns out, they’re not just food for those early birds – earthworms are detritivores, meaning they feed on dead organic matter and help decompose it, releasing nutrients that were sealed up back into the environment for plants and microbes to use. They’re a key player in the circle of life. However, sediment and soils have a tendency to accumulate a lot of pollutants, making it tough living for soil dwelling animals. Luckily, earthworms are masters at detoxifying pollutants through their unique physiology. Heavy metals, like lead or cadmium, are easily captured and stored away using specialized proteins called metallothioneins. These proteins have a remarkable capacity for binding onto free metals and transporting them away where they can’t cause any harm to sensitive tissues, sequestering them for long periods of time. Metallothioneins are common proteins – even we, humans, have them. What makes the earthworm system special is that the metallothioneins transport the bound metals to the liver (or the earthworm version of the liver, the chloragogen) where it covers the protein-bound metals with layers of amino acids and proteins, most likely to help eventually excrete them later. Earthworms are so good at this that oftentimes entire populations of worms that live in highly contaminated areas become almost completely resistant to the metals. This makes earthworms ideal candidates for cleaning up major chemical spills, remediating and cleaning the environment.

Inside the lowly earthworm lies a metal processing facility like no other. And as it turns out, a nanotechnology factory as well.

Inside the lowly earthworm lies an impressive metal processing facility (and nanomaterial factory). These little guys chomp down on soil, heavy metals and all, and processes them using a series of detoxification proteins called metallothioneins to capture and store toxic metals for safe keeping.

What’s even more interesting, however, is that this same metal detoxification pathway makes them an efficient (and more importantly, cheap) semiconductor factory. Researchers have found that the choragogen provides just the right conditions that allow metals like cadmium and tellurium to react and create tiny (high quality) nanoparticles called quantum dots. These miniscule particles, ranging from 2 to 10 microns across (that’s about 10 to 50 atoms!), are incredibly useful in the tech industry. When quantum dots are hit with a beam of light or have an electric current passed through them, they emit colored light, which happens to be sharper, brighter, and more vibrant than traditional LED lights. If you’ve recently bought a high definition TV then it’s very likely that the display you use to watch your favorite TV shows uses quantum dot display technology. But that’s not all, quantum dots can potentially revolutionize much of the tech industry, changing the way we approach anything from solar panels to lights, inks, and even biomedical technology.

Quantum dots are tiny (2-10 micrometers across!) particles that emit sharp, bright, and vibrant light when hit with light or an electric current. They have diverse uses and are currently used in high definition electronic displays.

Quantum dots are tiny (2-10 micrometers across!) particles that emit sharp, bright, and vibrant light when hit with light or an electric current. They have diverse uses (from solar panels to TV displays) and are a major milestone for the technology industry.

What makes earthworm quantum dots so intriguing (aside from the fact that they come from worms) are the potential biological uses. Remember that layer of amino acids and proteins that the worms use to cover the metallothionein-metal complex? That is what chemists call a passivating layer, which means it helps protect the interior complex but also helps them dissolve and distribute in water. Nanomaterials are notoriously hard to dissolve in water as they tend to clump (much like when you mix oil and water), and as they say, the human body is mostly just water (roughly 60% or so). So any biomedical use needs to find a way to make quantum dots behave in watery bodies. So far all solutions people have come up with either make the quantum dots toxic to living organisms (which kind of defeats the purpose) or alters the quantum dots so much that we see a loss in performance. The humble earthworm seems to have found a way around all of that. Laboratory experiments show that quantum dots made by earthworms are easily dissolved and taken up by mammalian cells in petri dishes, with no signs of any toxic effects.

Rat macrophage-like cells (right) are stained green with quantum dots made by earthworms. On the right are cancer cells green with quantum dots made by earthworms (and nuclei stained blue with a chemical stain). Quantum dots made by earthworms are easily dissolved and distributed into living cells and are not toxic to cells, unlike quantum dots made artificially in a lab, making earthworm quantum dots a potentially important tool in biomedical fields.

Rat macrophage-like cells (left)  and cancer cells (and nuclei stained blue with a chemical stain; right) are stained green with quantum dots made by earthworms. These particles are easily taken into living cells and are not as toxic as man-made quantum dots. Sturzenbaum et al., 2013. Nature Nanotechnology.

To be sure, there’s still a lot of quirks that need to be worked out and much to be learned still about the system before we’ll be seeing earthworm biotechnology farms cropping up (though wouldn’t that be something fun to imagine…). So for now, just bask in the mysterious glow of natural selection and ponder the series of serendipitous events that led to the evolution of a tiny nanotechnology factory within the humble earthworm. That’s certainly enough to keep me busy for a while.

Read more about earthworms and quantum dots doi:10.1038/nnano.2012.232