Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) declared thatthe best news out of the government shutdown was the hobbling of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Spoken like someone who’s obviously not too worried about poisons in her water or exposure to child-lethal pesticides or toxic compounds seeping into her food. And clearly not worried about the rest of us in that regard either.
Why do I say that? Because I do spend time worrying – and writing – about such public health threats. And so I see, over and over again, the efforts of the EPA to protect us. Let me just mention two recent examples from my own work.
My last post was about arsenic in drinking water. If you read ityou’ll find that the major threat is to people who depend on unregulated private wells. Those of us who drink from public water systems are protected from arsenic (and a laundry list of other toxic materials) by EPA safety requirements. This means that in regions of the county where aquifers are known to be contaminated by hundreds and occasionally thousands of parts per billion arsenic (such as New England or states like Arizona and Nevada), public utilities must keep that contamination down to 10 ppb or less.
Or consider this summer’s tragedy in India in which moe than two-dozen elementary school children were killed by accidental exposure to an exceptionally lethal pesticide. The EPA moved to banvthat pesticide in this country more than two decades ago. And in doing so issued an international warning call, which played a role in that same compound being banned, not in India, but in countries ranging from Brazil to Sri Lanka.
If you do pay attention to toxic exposures – which Rep. Blackburn clearly does not – than every time you turn around you bump into some effort by the EPA to keep the rest of us safe. Do they manage that, to the satisfaction of environmental and public health advocates? Absolutely not – there’s still far too much work yet to be done. But are we better off when the agency isn’t doing any of that work? Are we safer? Recently I got a call from a friend in Texas who’d been tracking the flow of dioxins from Superfund sites in Houston into Galveston Bay. Those of who live in the landlocked regions of the country get a lot of seafood from Galveston Bay and so we might argue that the EPA’s Superfund clean up program serves not only to protect the bay but the rest of us.
But now, of course, all the agency’s work to clean up Superfund sites is shut down. In fact, the agency has closed cleanup work at more than 500 Superfund sites around the country. You have to wonder about a country that thinks it’s a good idea to allow more time for poisons to seep into our food and water. Why is the work stoppage so dramatic? As a survey of shuttered environmental programs by Mother Jones points out, 94 percent of the agency’s staff is now furloughed.
So what happens when these protective regulations aren’t enforced because an agency like the EPA is shut down, when the rules meant to reduce poisonous exposure in this country become collateral damage in a political fight? Some of my fellow bloggers here at Wired Science have looked at what we’re losing at other agencies – at Superbug, Maryn McKennahas looked at what we’re losing at agencies like the CDC and FDA. At Charismatic Minifauna, Gwen Pearson has a great overviewof damage to agricultural and conservation science. On Wired’s main science page, Brandon Keim offers some depressingly good information on the severe effect on biomedical research.
My interest, as ever, is on how we deal with poisonous things. Aside from shuttered clean at older sites, the current showdown means that EPA inspectors responsible for keeping an eye on current air and water pollution problems have also been sent home. And what if you are someone who wonders if the agency is really doing that job, enforcing the rules of toxic protection, and you want to request records of their actions, or you are curious about contamination issues in your area? Well, as the government transparency website Muckrock points out, that’s also an option currently unavailable to you.
Do emissions of mercury suddenly vanish from smokestack streams because our government has shut down environmental monitoring? Do carcinogens like dioxin, neurotoxic metals like lead suddenly quit seeping out of contaminated sites for the during of political game playing? Do you wonder how people who insist this is making our country safer, that the EPA shutdown is “good news,” can say that with a straight face?
Recently, I interviewed a University of California researcher, Katherine Hammond, for a story I wrote for The New York Times about metal contamination of lipstick. She said to me that we used to lead the world in environmental protection and she worried that we were letting that slip away.
This shutdown – and the refusal to see what it costs us – seems to illustrate that slippage all too well. Keep those poisons coming, it says. We can promise we won’t be ready for them.
Image: Smoke from unscrubbed stacks/Wikipedia