Be warned: Killing EPA means hurting human beings, too

Jason Unrine
Jason Unrine

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is in danger of being eliminated.

During his campaign, Donald Trump said he would dramatically reduce or eliminate the agency. As president, he has appointed Scott Pruitt, a fierce EPA opponent, to administer the agency. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida has introduced a bill to terminate agency operations by December 2018. Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie is a co-sponsor of the bill to abolish the EPA. Since 2010, the agency’s budget has been reduced by 20 percent; its workforce by 12 percent.

We take the environmental protections we have for granted.

Many people have spent the majority of their lives since the major-environmental protection laws were passed in the early 1970s. I am just old enough to vaguely remember the frequent spills of chemicals into the Ohio River that would lead to shutoff of municipal water intakes along its banks, where I grew up.

I traveled to China for work recently; the air was so thick with smog that you could not see buildings across the street at certain times of day. The windows were coated with smog particles. People walked around with masks in a vain attempt to avoid breathing in the pollutants. As a parent, I couldn’t help but think how helpless Chinese parents must feel that they cannot protect their children from breathing this air.

Before the Clean Air Act, air quality in cities such as Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles was once a lot like China’s today.

Not only did long-term exposure to smog cause chronic cardiovascular disease, on the worst days it was enough to push sensitive individuals, such as the elderly, over the edge. This could be seen as spikes in heart-attack deaths on days when the air was thick and hearts were working hard to deal with the heat.

Other airborne pollutants, such as mercury, are invisible. Widespread awareness of the dangers of mercury emitted from industrial sources began in Minimata, Japan in the 1960s. Mercury from an industrial facility on Minimata Bay caused horrible birth defects and crippling neurological disease in residents who consumed fish from that bay. Reading the accounts of the victims and seeing the pictures of their contorted bodies is truly heartbreaking.

Widespread effects from mercury are subtler. Emitted from burning fossil fuels, it is transported over long distances, falls back to Earth and accumulates in fish over time. When mothers consume sufficiently large quantities of certain fish, it alters brain development in unborn children, leading to decreased brain function later in life.

Similarly, lead from the paint of decaying buildings and burning leaded gasoline was found all over the planet, including in the blood of children. Very small quantities caused harmful effects on brain development.

Going further back, we have a local example of rather severe consequences of water pollution. An outbreak of cholera in Lexington in the summer of 1833 killed almost 10 percent of the population.

Fortunately, we have come a long way in understanding and mitigating the effects of environmental pollution. For example, technology now exists to remove mercury from power-plant emissions. We have a much better understating of the dangers of lead and methods to mitigate its harmful effects. A properly functioning sanitary-sewer system, including two wastewater treatment plants in Lexington, following EPA guidelines, prevents cholera outbreaks.

Our current environmental regulations are not perfect, but they have gone a long way toward reducing the harmful effects of environmental pollution on human and environmental health. Whether these regulations are too relaxed or too stringent should be determined based on input from highly qualified scientists and engineers. Abolishing the EPA will reverse our environmental progress and silence these professionals who have dedicated their lives to protection of the health of our citizens and natural environment.

The states do excellent work enforcing some environmental standards, but they cannot effectively regulate the vast array of pollutants. Air and water pollution cross state and national boundaries. The technical expertise and data required for environmental protection are enormous. No single state is capable; even if they could, it would result in duplicated efforts and waste of taxpayer dollars.

The cost of funding the EPA is less than 0.27 percent of the federal budget. The cost of eliminating the EPA will undoubtedly have enormous human costs. We would live shorter, sicker, lower-quality lives with increased health-care costs. The prime victims will be our most vulnerable citizens: the poor, the elderly and children.

I do not write this to be alarming. I write this so that I can, at the very least, tell my children when they are old enough to understand that I spoke out. But I would still be filled with shame for what happened under our watch.

We, as a society, would have had the ability to protect life yet chose not to.

Jason Unrine of Lexington is an assistant professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Kentucky.