In December 2016, we attended EHS FEST (Environmental Health Science Festival), an event held in Durham, North Carolina, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the NIH agency responsible for environmental health research. At the opening session and following plenaries, we heard about the immense progress made in understanding how environmental exposures and climate change can adversely affect our health.
Juxtaposed against this sobering and impressive knowledge of preventable human misery and death came the announcement that Scott Pruitt is President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt, attorney general in the state of Oklahoma, is a known defender of manufacturing and energy interests, including those that will pollute the earth and harm human health. Relatedly, he is a climate-change denier who opposes clean energy and other practices that would reduce global warming, and he has sued the EPA on multiple occasions to block implementation of health-protective measures.
At EHS FEST, we heard that environmental exposures can affect health throughout the lifespan and that even exposures that occur pre-conceptually can lead to serious health consequences later in life, including breast and male reproductive cancers as well as reduced fertility and infertility. We have long known that heavy metals adversely affect the nervous system and child development; these toxicants occur naturally in the earth as well as polluting by-products of manufacturing. More frightening is the existence of tens of thousands of chemicals that are manufactured and have health effects on multiple body systems. Most of these chemicals have not been thoroughly tested for human health effects. Many are endocrine disruptors, which affect reproductive capacity and organs, the immune system (leading to cancers) and the nervous system, among other morbidities. And we are exposed to these chemicals concurrently, resulting in combined effects that we are only beginning to understand. As a result of recognition of insufficient regulation of chemicals in commerce, in 2016 the bipartisan-supported Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law. While this new law still falls short of regulating the manufacture of problematic chemicals, the EPA is ahead of its timeline to begin regulating the first 10 of 80,000-plus chemicals. As a friend to business interests at the expense of public health, the new administration will slow or even stop the evaluation of chemicals.
Air pollution, even at the relatively low levels experienced in the US, contains chemical mixtures and is toxic to the lungs, cardiovascular system, immune function, and the nervous system, leading to elevated risk of heart attack, asthma, and even learning disabilities in children. One of the air pollutants of greatest concern, fine particulate matter (less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter), has been associated with tens of thousands of deaths in the US each year and is one of the leading causes of death globally. We have multiple regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act, that protect us against these exposures, but the regulations need to be enforced and kept current with scientific knowledge. Every indication is that Pruitt was selected because of his antipathy toward these and other environmental regulations.
Climate change was also discussed at the FEST. In a plenary on this topic, multiple websites were introduced that provide information on climate change, including global monitors of measures such as air and water temperatures, sea levels, polar ice cap recession, and carbon dioxide levels. In light of extreme weather events related to climate change, these websites include advice to communities on how to deal with extraordinary flooding, winds, snow, heat, and cold, with their concomitant infrastructure disasters.
One of the most fascinating governmental websites on climate change is that of the US Global Climate Change Research Program, a group of 13 federal government agencies organized by presidential order in 1989. This group includes the EPA, but also the departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture, and nine other agencies. Together these groups monitor climate change and produce reports summarizing their findings. The most recent report is from 2016. The conclusions of the report are alarming and raise critical issues about the safety of our communities, our lives, and the well-being of future generations.
Recently, the city of Miami has begun to flood, and it is predicted that coastal flooding will occur throughout the country if the effects of climate change are not curtailed. Further, research has consistently shown that the near-term health benefits of addressing climate change are substantial, through improvements in local air quality. Despite this, Trump has indicated that he will nominate Pruitt for the EPA and a host of “climate-deniers” to multiple other cabinet and leadership posts that have historically provided data and guidance on how to control this threat.
How will these appointments imperil our safety when we have scientists and civil servants working on the problem and capable of initiating changes and controls? We worry that these people will likely be muzzled, moved to other governmental organizations that lack regulation setting authority, or even fired. Rumors that civil servants and scientists in the Department of Energy will be subjected to questionnaires about their involvement in climate change research and activities are deeply concerning. In prior administrations, when the EPA has been directed by appointees who favor industry over the environment, agencies have failed to implement and enforce positive environmental policies, and employees have been harassed or have left due to unacceptable work situations.
What will happen to the excellent work of groups like the US Global Climate Change Research Program, which was proposed by President Reagan, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, and passed the Senate by a vote of 100-0? It is important to remember that this is a federal, governmental program formed by presidential decree and supported by law. Their work, though important, has not prevented the effects of climate change that have already threatened our communities and health. It is beyond sobering to consider what will happen to the planet if they are even further muzzled or even eliminated under the new administration.
Roberta White is chair and professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health (SPH). Jonathan Levy is SPH associate chair and professor of environmental health. Wendy Heiger-Bernays is an SPH associate professor of environmental health.