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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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EPA, Front-Line Defender against Air and Water Pollution: Effective Enough?

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb

What would you do if I were to slip arsenic into your drink?  Have me arrested, I hope.  Yet it’s not a crime in many states for utility companies to allow arsenic and a host of other toxins from coal ash disposal sites to leach, leak or spill into waterways, sometimes ending up in people’s drinking water wells.  By the same token, cars, trucks, factories and power plants spew toxins into the air every day, poisoning us slowly with every breath we take.

The health impacts of air and water pollutants are grave; they contribute to cancers, heart attacks, lung disease, and brain and nervous system damage, among other serious effects.  They provoke thousands of premature deaths every year, as well as human suffering and days lost from work and school.  And they cost our economy billions of dollars. 

Why is this allowed?  As they say, there ought to be a law.

In fact there are laws, notably the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.  These statutes, passed by Congress in the 1970s, established the basic structures for setting quality standards and controlling discharges of pollutants into the air and waters of the United States.  It’s the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to execute those laws, protecting human health and the environment by determining at what levels to set air and water quality standards and proposing which polluters need to curb their toxic emissions.  This makes the EPA the front-line protector of our health from air and water toxins.

Thanks to the EPA’spromulgation and enforcement of regulations, we’ve come a long way from rivers that spontaneously combust or smog that causes acute death.  But at the same time we have learned much more about the threats to health from chronic exposures to lower levels of toxins, and we have identified new toxins that should be regulated.  So there remains much for EPA to do to protect public health. 

Is EPA doing that job effectively now?  For toxics like coal ash that are not currently regulated to protect human health, what is hindering the EPA from taking action?  And how can health professionals and concerned citizens spur the EPA to do its job fully and effectively?  Those are the critical questions addressed by this month’s Environmental Health Policy Institute.

Responses

Citizens' Petitions for Protection from Toxic Contamination
Russ Maddox

The Buck Stops Here: Citizens’ Role in Helping the EPA Protect Public Health
Jennifer Peterson & Abel Russ

What do cost-benefit data show for the major Obama EPA rules? What do they imply for the economy?
Isaac Shapiro

Little-Known White House Office Plays a Big Role in Weakening Rules Aimed at Protecting Public Health
Amy Sinden

A Health Professional Speaks to the EPA
Harry Wang, MD

Innovative Program Increases Capacity of Scientists, Community Members and Clinicians to make a Difference at USEPA
Tracey J Woodruff, PhD, MPH; Marj Plumb, DrPH; and Jessica Trowbridge, MPH

The views expressed in these essays are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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