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Toxic politics: How EPA cuts can literally poison you

The new administration’s treatment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is draconian at best.

Trump’s recently proposed budget cuts of about 31 percent and the appointment of Scott Pruitt, an avowed antagonist of the EPA and denier of human-caused climate change, as the agency’s chief are but two features of this comedy of errors that have managed to surface as national headlines. Alarmingly, it appears that popular opposition to these moves has largely dissipated, lost in competition with swaths of issues deemed more pressing, like healthcare.

However, even a cursory examination of the many roles of the EPA reveals its extensive reach and influence on innumerable aspects of a citizen’s life. For the same reasons, it should pique the interest of the common citizen that the current administration has changed the rhetoric surrounding the purpose of the EPA.

Curiously enough, the EPA’s official website was very recently changed to its current form and is objectively lacking in scientific substance as compared to the Obama-era EPA website. The new website contains a link to a “snapshot” of the previous version as it stood on Jan. 19, 2017. (Attempting to access the old version yields a notification at the top of the page that the old site is “historical material.”)

To give you a sense of what kinds of changes were made, note that all of the four main articles rotating on the first page of the Obama-era website pertain to the Clean Air Act and air pollution. In contrast, the new administration’s EPA website features an article about Trump’s executive order on energy independence, a piece about a Superfund cleanup site in Chicago and two stories featuring Scott Pruitt speaking to workers about the EPA’s new “Back-to-Basics” approach that will “create an environment where jobs will grow.”

To their credit, at least they included the word “environment.”

To address the objections of readers who feel that environmental issues, while important, are not the most urgent of concerns, I draw your attention to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). Here is where the EPA’s regulatory role directly affects the health of the American consumer on a timescale more immediate than global warming, although the effects of rising global temperatures on health are arguably no less insidious than exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Simply put, this act was passed with the intention of keeping toxic substances out of consumer goods, but it came with crippling flaws. Substances were free to exist in the market and were only tested if believed to cause harm. Of the tens of thousands of substances reported to the EPA, a shockingly small number were actually tested, possibly due to an impractical 90-day testing window. It comes as no shock, then, that the EPA has banned about five substances in total.

What does this have to do with Trump?

The TSCA was made somewhat more rational in 2016 as a result of a few actions taken by Congress, but it was by no means perfected. Slowly but steadily, the U.S. was moving forward down the path of improving the TSCA and many other imperfect pieces of legislation tied to the EPA that impact human health. The current administration’s attack on the EPA not only brought these efforts to a grating halt, but its overzealous anti-regulation agenda has serious potential to point us in the opposite direction.

Given its far-reaching negative implications, the dismantling of the EPA should snatch the attention of every last American citizen, whether her or his pet issue is healthcare, the environment or even consumer’s rights and transparency. Particularly in this case, apathy is toxic.

 

Writer’s note: The author credits the Environmental and Health Policy Analysis lectures of Professor Joe Nation and thanks him for much of the TSCA information included in this article.

Contact Alizeh Ahmad at alizeha ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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