WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory panel on children’s health gathered last week to consider a few items that had long been on its agenda: getting lead out of water, cutting pollution-related asthma, and educating doctors about toxins in toys.
The panel also took up an issue that few members could have foreseen several months ago: keeping the program off the chopping block.
Caroline Cox, a member of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, suggested a letter to the incoming EPA chief, touting the economic benefits of protecting children from pollutants that can damage their brains or cause illness later in life. (“That might resonate,” she said.) Tom Neltner, an Environmental Defense Fund lawyer and a member of the advisory group since 2011, said the message must be more urgent.
“With any administration change there are people who don’t have any idea about this issue,” Neltner said. “We should emphasize that kids don’t get a second chance to develop a brain. They don’t get a second chance on a reproductive system.”
For scientists, the issue of environmental health is not typically seen as politically fraught as climate change. But interviews with staffers throughout the EPA underline widespread concern — and some panic — about the fate of environmental health regulation under President Trump and Scott Pruitt, his nominee to lead the agency.
Pruitt’s skepticism on climate change is well-known, as are his ties to the oil and gas industry. He filed or joined 14 lawsuits against the EPA during his six years as Oklahoma attorney general, and EPA officials have already been told to expect budget cuts to certain initiatives.
But the EPA’s environmental health staff are still waiting for the other shoe to drop on them if, as expected, Pruitt is confirmed.
Although Pruitt has not been particularly vocal about environmental health issues, he has a long record of opposition to environmental regulations that go beyond his many statements on climate change.
In testimony before Congress last May, he asserted that the EPA was never intended to be the country’s “frontline regulator.” During a confirmation hearing, asked about harmful levels of lead in the human body, he said, “that’s something I have not reviewed nor know about.” And he said that the EPA would have to consider the science about asbestos before taking further action, although it is a known carcinogen.
To advocates of environmental health regulation, it all spells trouble.
The study of the impact of chemicals on living organisms has actually boomed in recent years, after decades of being dismissed as fringe science.
Both EPA and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences oversee hundreds of studies annually. Some evaluate the cognitive impacts of metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury on children living near Superfund sites, including those in impoverished areas. Others test the impact of pesticides on the behavior of children of farmworkers or the relationship between pesticide exposure and depression.
“Research on the effects of toxics on the human body has advanced significantly in recent years,” said Sam Delson, of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “We have revised many of our health-protective standards and risk assessments to reflect the special sensitivity of children and other subpopulations.”
Lately, the EPA and other agencies have been focused on a new category of toxins called “contaminants of emerging concern” — that is, nanoparticles and other ingredients in your medicines, cosmetics, and other consumer goods that might not be as safe as once believed, especially for pregnant women and children.
Many researchers fear that their funding from the EPA will be cut in the Trump administration; and even if it’s not, many suspect, the agency will no longer issue protective rules based on their scientific evidence.
“The tragedy is that no one who voted for President Trump voted for dirty water, dirty air, or more dangerous pesticides in their food,” said Scott Faber, vice president of governmental affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington. “But every indication is that Scott Pruitt will methodically weaken the basic environmental health protections.’’
To date under Trump, the EPA has blocked about 30 pending regulations, not unusual for a new administration. But a review of those rules shows many of them were designed to protect the public from environmental hazards, including air pollution, contaminated water, and hazardous chemicals.
The agency is not required to explain why regulations were canceled, and neither the White House nor Pruitt responded to requests for comment about their plans at the EPA. But the Trump administration has been clear that it believes regulations are a burden on small businesses and restrict economic growth.
“The signals are disconcerting,” said one EPA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the record. “They could leave us doing the same stuff and slowly make changes or they could come in the first day and tell us, change what you are doing right now.” One especially vulnerable area, this official said, was lead, where the Obama administration did not accomplish all it intended to following the Flint, Mich., water poisoning disaster.
But the big question is how the new EPA will implement the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.
The law, which President Obama signed in June, revised EPA’s handling of toxic substances, giving the agency new clout and setting deadlines for reviewing chemicals of concern. The legislation was the subject of debate for more than a dozen years, and was championed by New Jersey Democratic Senator Lautenberg, whose backing paved the way to bipartisan consensus on the measure.
So, what will happen now?
“The biggest thing from our corner of the world is the implementation of the Lautenberg reforms,” said Elizabeth Hitchcock, legislative director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of public health and environmental groups. “The law gave EPA new tools in its toolbox to get dangerous chemicals out of the marketplace. Now, it’s a question of whether they will use them.”
The law imposed deadlines for the EPA to select and review suspect chemicals used in common household goods and found in the environment. Last fall, the EPA released its first list of 10, which the agency is now reviewing. But the next step is more contentious: The EPA must agree on the science, to decide which substances to ban.
“It will be up to the new people at EPA to figure out how to implement the changes and write the rules to do so,” said Myron Ebell, who ran the EPA transition team for Trump and works on energy and environmental issues at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“My guess is they will be trying to do exactly what Congress has prescribed, and that they will be trying to do that in the most scientifically defensible way possible.”
Ebell also hinted that the EPA’s environmental education programs could be reconsidered.
“Far too much of the EPA’s environmental education efforts are not scientifically respectable,” he said.
But many scientists — including a group of nearly 450 who submitted a petition against Pruitt’s nomination earlier this week — say that if the EPA is run by officials who deny climate change is a serious problem, they cannot possibly get the science right.
Former EPA official Tracey Woodruff, who now directs the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco, is among those expecting a significant rollback in environmental health rules.
“Once they get into power, they have so many different options in how they can influence science and policymaking,” she said.
“They could defund areas of research that they think might make the industry look bad, so research on pesticides or toxic chemicals or research on children’s health could go,” Woodruff said. “They could go after the biomonitoring program, which is already on life support, and cut funding” to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Woodruff noted that in many cases, an EPA administrator could not take office and suspend most regulations. There would need to be a regulatory review process.
“Unless they change that too,” she said.