Most people have a vague understanding of what our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does. Some people may have memories of killer smog and rivers on fire and how badly our air and water were contaminated in the not-so-distant past. They may know that the agency is somehow responsible for ensuring that our air and water are clean, that our land and treasured natural resources are protected, and that our health is not damaged by toxic chemicals and pollutants.
Because the environment is a critical determinant of human health, the EPA is really a public health agency, with environment in its name. And science plays a fundamental and essential role in its ability of to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public.
With hearings and debates on the fiscal year (FY) 2019 federal budget getting underway in Congress, we are once again working to defend the budget of the EPA against attacks from the Trump administration and some in Congress. We are paying particular attention to the science and technology (S&T) component of the EPA budget because of the fundamental role that science plays across the agency in its mission to protect our health and the health of our environment.
Rather than cutting the resources for critical programs, our leaders should be boosting investment in them. Here’s why.
Understanding the EPA’s Science and Technology account
The S&T account: It may sound esoteric and parsing this budget component can certainly be daunting. But what it covers and the benefits it brings us are easy to understand. Essentially, the S&T account funds science-based research throughout the agency.
Here’s just a snapshot of the programs, activities, and research and development efforts that fall under this EPA budget category—along with some info on what the Trump administration is proposing for them in FY19. These budget proposals are chilling and, if implemented, would certainly hamper the EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Clean air: Know someone with asthma, heart, or respiratory disease? The S&T account is critical to their health. It supports EPA efforts and activities to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, examine the effects of air pollution on public health, track progress in improving air quality and reducing associated risks, and provide models, tools, and technical guidance to states. The EPA is our nation’s primary source of atmospheric data on acid deposition, regional ground-level ozone, and other forms of particulate and gaseous pollutants that put our families and communities at risk.
And that pollution from cars, trucks, buses, nonroad vehicles (such as farm and construction equipment)—and the fuels that power them? The S&T budget is critical to developing and implementing standards to control their harmful emissions, as well as evaluating new control technologies. It allows the EPA to provide information and tools to states, local, and tribal agencies, as well as communities, to reduce air toxics emissions and risks specific to their local areas.
The S&T budget also supports our National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Testing Laboratory—a state of the art facility and national resource in Ann Arbor, Michigan that conducts the research and testing needed to develop and ensure compliance with tailpipe emissions standards—the safeguards that control and protect us from breathing in harmful chemical and particulate pollutants from transportation sources. And remember the news that Volkswagen and Audi were cheating on their US emissions tests by installing software in their diesel cars? It was our national Vehicles Lab that confirmed it and then recalled the offending vehicles.
Recent analysis has shown that the public will reap clean air benefits to the tune of $2 trillion (that’s trillion with a T) by the year 2020, compared to estimated costs of $65 billion in the same time period. Given that clean air is absolutely essential to our health and EPA efforts around clean air have been one of EPA’s biggest public health success stories, it’s pure folly to entertain cuts to these efforts. To keep them robust and up-to-date, increases in funding make much more sense. But President Trump has proposed cutting $30,845,000 from EPA S&T programs that focus on clean air. That’s 27% cut from the final budget passed in FY18. That certainly won’t help us breathe any easier!
Indoor Air: The administration is proposing to eliminate two indoor air programs funded by the S&T account and shift the responsibility of protecting families from exposure to indoor air pollutants back to the states. These include the radon program and the program to reduce risks from indoor air. Radon is a known human carcinogen and a significant cause of lung cancer, even at low exposure levels.
Other indoor air contaminants also pose health risks, and the EPA has been conducting and coordinating research on indoor air quality, doing field testing, and providing information and technical support to states and localities. As the EPA seeks to increasingly shift responsibility back to the states, it’s reasonable to question if the states will have the resources and capacity to address radon and other indoor air pollution in residents’ homes and living spaces and adequately help protect them from the associated health effects.
Given the public health significance of indoor air pollution and the fact that we spend the vast amount of our lifetimes indoors, what we really need to see is increased funding to support research and technology to reduce the health risks to our children, our families, and our communities.
Emergency Response Preparedness: When emergencies and disasters strike, we expect our federal agencies to be ready to respond. Through its Homeland Security sub-budgets, the S&T account at the EPA ensures that the agency (and thus we the affected public) will have the science, analyses, sampling, and measurement capacity needed to respond to radiological or nuclear incidents, to oil and hazardous substance emergencies, to terrorist and cyber threats, and to all-hazard events on our nation’s critical water infrastructure.
The EPA is responsible for remediating contaminated environments affected by industrial accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. The S&T budget supports the research needed to fill the critical gaps in the EPA’s ability to carry out these responsibilities and help communities prepare for, absorb, and recover from disasters.
Given the many serious chemical emergencies experienced by our communities in just the past few years—like explosions at oil refineries and chemical plants—along with the health impacts, social disruption, and property damage caused by these events and by the increasing ferocity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods it is critical to ensure that the agency has the funding it needs to help us prepare, respond, and recover effectively when disaster strikes.
Pesticides: By design, pesticides are meant to kill—pests. But they are dangerous neurotoxins that can and do kill and sicken people as well. A 2012 study of human exposure to pesticides in the US reported an average of 130,136 calls to poison control centers from 2006 to 2010, with an average of 20,116 cases (17.8%) treated in health care facilities annually. The Agency for Health Care Quality and Research reported an annual average of 7385 emergency room visits during 2006 to 2008, and 1419 annual hospitalizations during 2005 to 2009. Between February 2016 and February 2017, 2,577 pesticide exposure incidents were reported by the National Pesticide Information Center.
The EPA is responsible for registering and re-evaluating pesticides to protect consumers, pesticide users, and workers who apply them, as well as children and other sensitive populations. The agency’s Chemical Safety, Pollution Prevention and Pesticide program relies on the science and analytical capability of two of its laboratories to evaluate possible adverse effects of pesticide use and determine the risks they pose to public health. EPA pesticide programs also use the latest science and conduct risk assessments to determine the risks that pesticides pose to human health and ecological effects on plants, animals, and ecosystems that are not the targets of the pesticide. The agency also has responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act related to pesticide use. Despite all this, the administration is proposing to cut the EPA pesticide licensing program by 15%.
Research: While most if not all of the above mentioned programs include analytical components, EPA’s S&T account specifically identifies several budget categories as research. These include:
- Air and Energy Research provides scientific information to EPA programs and regional offices. This line item supports the analysis and publication of research to disseminate EPA research findings on air quality, emissions, and health impacts across all 50 states. It is the scientific cornerstone on EPA efforts to identify and recommend action to reduce air pollution, including the health disparities of air pollutants, and to protect the health and well-being of the American public.Our communities, local and state officials, public health agencies, and health care institutions rely on the findings of this research to stay informed and take necessary action. In this year’s proposed budget, down by a whopping 66%.
- Chemical Safety and Sustainability Research evaluates how the use and disposal of thousands of chemicals, both existing and under development, might affect public health and the environment. This research provides the fundamental information, tools, and methods needed to make better-informed and more timely decisions about the chemicals in use in the US—including those used in our homes, schools, and workplaces and that find their way into our consumer products, household items, water, and food.It also supports the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), the gold-standard of toxicity reviews that provides critical and impartial information on cancer and non-cancer health risks—independent of its use by EPA programs and regional offices. In FY18, the administration proposed eliminating IRIS, but Congress did not agree and provided IRIS with level funding. In its FY19 proposal, the administration plans to “review” IRIS, including moving from traditional IRIS assessments to “fit-for-purpose” products to ensure risk assessments remains responsive to stakeholders/partners. This modification will surely be welcome news to the agency’s industry stakeholders; not so much for their public, community, and public health stakeholders.In this year’s proposed budget, the chemical safety and sustainability research line is down 33%.
- Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research provides the robust research and scientific analysis needed to inform policy making under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. This is the essential research needed to ensure that the water in our lakes, streams, and rivers are healthy and safe enough to drink, to fish, and to enjoy for swimming and boating. The program develops analytical methods for detecting emerging contaminants, and develops sampling protocols and risk models to help states and communities protecting human health from well-known contaminants, like lead in drinking water. One needs only to reference Flint to understand the critical importance of this research program.
- Sustainable Communities Research supports regulatory activities and provides on-demand technical support for federal, tribal and state-led cleanup activities and during emergencies. It conducts health, environmental engineering, and ecological research, translating their findings into planning and analysis tools for communities to improve environmental and health outcomes. For example, program researchers found a way to estimate how drinking water, food, dust, soil, and air contribute to the lead levels in the blood of infants and young children. Communities take note: The administration proposes to cut this research program by 60%.
Our national labs
EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), supported by the S&T Account, supports three national labs and four national centers located in 14 facilities across the country. The experts in these labs and centers are the linchpins of research and development efforts that inform the EPA programs and efforts described above. They are also members of their local communities, maybe even your neighbors. Locations include: Ada, OK; Athens, GA; Chapel Hill, NC, Cincinnati, OH; Corvallis, OR; Duluth, MN; Edison, NH; Grosse Ile, MI; Gulf Breeze, FL; Las Vegas, NV (soon to be shuttered); Narragansett, RI; Newport, OR; Research Triangle Park, NC; and Washington, DC.
Despite the centrality of ORD research to our public health, environmental quality, and emergency preparedness, President Trump has proposed cutting its FY19 budget by 46% and staffing levels by 37% compared to the FY18 annualized continuing resolution budget. Ask yourself: Does this ensure that EPA has the robust and necessary resources and expertise to meet the scientific challenges of the future? To me, this looks more like a giant step backwards.
From Alaska and Hawaii to the lower 48: cause for concern
No matter where you call home in this vast and beautiful country, we can likely all agree that our health, our communities, our air, land, water, our treasured landmarks, and our critical environmental resources need safeguarding and protecting. The song says, “This land is our land.” We need to remember that “this EPA is our EPA”—we the people are meant to be the primary beneficiaries of its mission. Not the regulated industry.
Air pollution remains a significant risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and premature death across the country. More than half of all Americans—166 million people—live in counties where people are exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution. Fairbanks, Alaska was ranked #1 for annual particulate pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas and #4 for 24-hour particulate pollution out of 201 metropolitan areas. Los Angeles – Long Beach, CA ranked #1 for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan areas, #7 for 24-hour particle pollution out of 201 metropolitan areas, and #4 for annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas.
And the recent EPA decision to strip away a key component of the agency’s “once in, always in” (OIAI) air pollution protection policy could result in increased emissions of toxic pollutants from major industrial sources in essentially every state. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced an interactive map of industrial facilities with reduced pollution control requirements and potential emission increases by congressional district. A double whammy when coupled with the proposed cuts in EPA clean air programs and research.
Stand up for science at the EPA
The EPA is a critical component of our nation’s efforts to protect our health and the quality of the environment on which it depends. Without a robust scientific enterprise, it is hard to imagine how EPA can address the problems we are facing today, let alone the known and unknown threats we will be facing tomorrow.
The current administration’s proposal for resourcing science and technology at EPA reflects dangerous short-term thinking. Now is the time to weigh in and ask your legislators to oppose any cuts to the EPA S&T budget and to support an increase in funding for the critical scientific research and staff needed to protect and advance our health now and into the future.
Call your legislators today at 202-224-3121, and ask them to protect—and invest—in science at the EPA
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