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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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A Health Professional Speaks to the EPA

By Harry Wang, MD

As physicians and other health professionals, we have a unique opportunity to combine awareness of science with our professional experience by advocating to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it uphold its mission.  You do not need to be an expert to do so; as this article will indicate, any informed health professional can support public health by testifying at an EPA hearing.      

The mission of the EPA, formed in 1970, is to protect human health and the environment.  EPA reduces environmental risk by setting standards based on scientific research and enforcing federal laws regarding environmental health.  For example, the Clean Air Act, last amended in 1990, is the law that defines EPA’s responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation’s air quality.  National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established in 1970 and currently cover six principal air pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particle pollution, and sulfur dioxide. 

EPA periodically reviews these standards by going through a lengthy process of planning, integrated science assessment, risk/exposure assessment, and policy assessment, followed by the development and publishing of a proposed rule.  Public hearings then occur, after which EPA issues its final rule. 

How do health professionals have input into EPA rules?   

1. After EPA announces the dates and locations of public hearings, go to the EPA website to sign up for a five-minute time slot to testify—the sooner, the better to secure a time that fits into your schedule.  If you are part of a group, sign up for a block of time with your group’s name.  Although many hearings are held all day and into the evening hours, testimony earlier in the day is more likely to attract media coverage. 

2. Check the EPA website as you approach the hearing date to make sure you are listed as a witness and to see who else is testifying.  If you have not secured a specific time to testify, you can also arrive at the hearing, sign in, and wait until there is an open time to speak.

3. Educate yourself on the overall health issues as well as the specifics of what EPA is proposing.  Review the revised standards on the EPA website, where you can also view fact sheets and technical supporting documents.  Consult with advocacy groups to obtain background information and suggested talking points. 

4. Prepare your testimony, keeping it to five minutes.  Include specific health benefits and cost savings that would result if EPA set a certain standard.  Blend the use of scientific studies and professional and personal experience.  Try to bring a unique perspective and be creative, as the panel may have been sitting all day listening to similar testimony; for example, you might use a memorable story to urge EPA to carry out its mission to protect public health and the environment.  Keep your testimony short and to the point.  EPA is well aware of all of the scientific issues but is under considerable political pressure from Congress and the White House.  Conclude your remarks with the specific action(s) you would like EPA to take.    

5. Recruit others to testify, coordinating what you say to cover all pertinent areas.  Meet beforehand to discuss the health issues and talking points, and to practice presenting your testimony.  This can be an experience that will bring your group closer together and also help you prepare for the hearing.      

6. Submit letters and/or op-eds to your local paper before the hearing date in order to increase public awareness of the health issues at stake, encourage public participation at the hearing, and alert local elected officials.          

7. Leave a printed copy of your testimony after the hearing and/or submit it electronically on the EPA website.  Inform others who did not testify that they can submit their comments on the EPA website.  

8. Record your testimony at the hearing and post it online to gain a wider audience and to encourage others to submit comments to EPA.

In summary, testifying at an EPA hearing is an important and satisfying way to encourage EPA to save lives and improve the health of our citizens and the environment.  EPA needs our support and encouragement to do its job and to base its decisions on the best available science.

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