Since the EPA was established in 1970 “to consolidate in one agency a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection,” the Agency has been a powerful leader in the clean-up of polluted water, air and land. From reducing auto emissions, to banning several dangerous pesticides, to increasing recycling, EPA led the way.
The air we breathe is much cleaner as a result. Toxic pollutants have been reduced, including such deadly threats as mercury, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Countless citizens have been spared premature death and debilitating disease.
We have made tremendous strides since those grim days when rivers caught fire and our cities’ skylines were shrouded in layers of smog. Yet serious environmental concerns continue to threaten human health. Consider a few hazards that Physicians for Social Responsibility is vigorously managing.
Coal ash is the highly toxic waste product left after coal is burned, for example at coal-fired power plants. Its toxic components run the gamut from “A to Z,” arsenic to zinc, and include mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, selenium and others. This toxic waste is often disposed in ponds—some better described as small lakes—held back by nothing more than an earthen wall.
CBS News counted more than 1,000 coal ash pits or ponds across America, many of them old, inadequately monitored and poorly secured. The result can be large-scale accidents and water contamination. When an earthen retaining wall broke at the TVA coal plant in Kingston, TN, just before Christmas 2008, it flooded 300 acres with toxic sludge and contaminated the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The area became a Superfund site, whose cleanup falls under the supervision of EPA.
EPA scientists and engineers serve all Americans when they address the monitoring and disposal of coal ash. Maintaining a realistic number of federal EPA stewards is just one of the steps that could prevent future acts of contamination like these.
Air pollutants, with their immediate effects on health and their potential to accelerate climate change, are another major concern of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Take ozone, for example, one of the most widespread and least well-controlled air pollutants in the United States. Ozone contributes to asthma attacks, aggravates chronic lung diseases and some pre-existing heart problems, and causes permanent damage to the lungs.
Ozone also contributes to premature deaths, even at levels below the EPA-established air quality standard. Sadly, ozone pollution worsened significantly in the United States between 2014 and 2016. We would like to see EPA scientists take steps such as tightening the CAFE standards to improve the fuel economy of cars and light trucks, since vehicle pollutants contribute to ozone formation and exacerbate the climate crisis.
The effects of climate change are multiple and dangerous. They increase the frequency of lethal heat waves, coastal flooding, and extreme storms; extend allergy seasons; damage our food crops and facilitate the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. Higher temperatures also increase ozone pollution, and increased heat in 2016 likely drove the recent increase in ozone, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air report.
Given this multifaceted threat to health, we urgently need to rein in the causes of climate change. That means replacing coal, oil and gas with clean renewable energy sources like sun, wind and geothermal power.
While that transition is underway, we need to reduce our energy waste by improving our energy efficiency and preventing leakage of climate-damaging methane from fracked gas. Physicians for Social Responsibility would welcome the EPA’s support in all these areas.
We count on the U.S. EPA to be Americans’ first and best line of defense. Its national reach, its rigorous scientific research and its dedicated professional staff are powerful assets. When applied to protect Americans’ health, they yield significant improvements in air and water quality. And they save lives.
Let’s be frank: the EPA isn’t always the protective force that we need it to be. In fact, Physicians for Social Responsibility has petitioned the EPA and has sued it in court to require it to step up its protection of human health. But we do so precisely because they are the best option we have—and because it’s their job.
For all those reasons, we as a nation need a strong EPA that is active, independent, fully staffed and adequately funded.
Cross-posted from SaveTheUSEPA.org.