Six Months into the Trump Administration: Science and Public Health Under Siege

July 24, 2017 | 9:24 am
The EPA's Clean Air Act standards protect the health of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

My colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have released a report on how science—and public health—have been sidelined during the first six months of the Trump administration. The report documents a deliberate and familiar set of strategies that undermines the role of science, facts, and evidence in public policy and decision-making.

From a public health perspective, the short- and long-term impacts are truly frightening. The Trump administration—aided and abetted by a willing Congress—is actively pushing an ideological, anti-science agenda that will profoundly affect the health, safety, and security of children, families, and communities today, tomorrow, and for decades to come.

They claim their approach is pro-business, but on closer look, that isn’t true. It harms the many good business people who want to play by the rules and make a profit without harming the public or their workers. How? By giving an unfair advantage to unscrupulous businesses that will put profit ahead of public and worker safety and health.

Control, Alt, Delay: Public health protections on the chopping block

Mercury, lead, arsenic, ozone, beryllium, silica, chlorpyrifos. These substances all have several things in common:

  1. They have all been found to contaminate our air, water, soil, and/or food, as well as some of our workplaces and community environments.
  2. Robust and often long-standing science has proven that exposure to them can cause serious health effects, including death.
  3. Government agencies charged with protecting our health and safety have established rules and standards to prevent or minimize our exposure to them. (Note: these and other public health safeguards are increasingly denigrated as unnecessary regulations by the Trump administration and some in Congress.)
  4. Exposure standards established years ago have been found to be insufficiently protective.
  5. The Trump administration has taken steps to weaken, delay, and subvert recent science-based safeguards that enhance public protection from these toxic substances.

Make no mistake. There is an all-out assault on the agencies charged with using independent, unconflicted science to protect our nation’s public health—and on the critical resources and infrastructure they need to do just that.

The proposed draconian cuts to budgets, staffing levels, and programs at agencies like the EPA, CDC, FEMA,  NOAA, USDA, and OSHA speak for themselves. (And don’t even get me started on how current congressional efforts to reform health care will impact the health of our most vulnerable populations.)

But the real issue isn’t about protecting agency budgets or staff levels, essential as they are. It’s about protecting all of us from known (and emerging and future) threats to our health, safety, and well-being. What follows is just a snapshot of this administration’s siege on public health.

Children and women first? Not so much

Informed by a wealth of scientific evidence, and putting the health of children first, the EPA banned the indoor use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos back in 2000.

Chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxin, is known to affect brain development and cause developmental delays in children exposed in their homes, through their diets, and through their mothers in utero. It has also been shown to sicken farmworkers who apply it, and to contaminate drinking water supplies in farming communities.

In 2015, the EPA announced that it would revoke all tolerances for its use on or in food—essentially banning its use—noting that it was unable to find a safe level of exposure. On March 29, 2017, less than three months into the Trump administration and 20 days after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the advice of his  agency’s own chemical safety experts and reversed this decision—ironically noting that “By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making—rather than predetermined results.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced the decision. In its June 27, 2017, letter to Mr. Pruitt, the medical association called the risk of chlorpyrifos to infant and children’s health and development “unambiguous” and urged the EPA to listen to its own scientists and go forward with the proposed rule to end its uses on food.

The next time EPA is required to review the safety of the chemical is five years out—2022 to be exact. Until then, children will be eating peaches, pears, broccoli, and other foods grown with chlorpyrifos, as will pregnant women who are unknowingly putting their babies at risk.  Farmworkers and their families will also continue to be exposed—but hey, Dow Chemical, and the smaller manufacturers, will have “regulatory certainty.”

A West Virginia Coal Miner sprays rock dust

A West Virginia coal miner sprays rock dust 900 feet underground. OSHA has estimated that about 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. Photo: courtesy of NIOSH

Protecting our nation’s workforce: Not in the cards

The assault on worker health is one that has particular meaning to me, having spent decades of my life specifically focused on occupational health and safety. And when I think about how long (decades) it takes to promulgate standards to protect worker health—even when their dangers have been known for eons—I am truly astounded by what the current administration and Congress have done.

Take silica. Its devastating health effects have been known for centuries. As far back as 1556, in his Treatise on Mining, Agricola described a pulmonary disease afflicting stone cutters and miners.  Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the father of occupational medicine, wrote about respiratory symptoms and sand-like substances in the lungs of stone cutters in his 1700 seminal work De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers). The 1936 Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster at Gauley Bridge in West Virginia—one of the worst industrial disasters in US history—is as harrowing a tale of occupational exposure to silica as one would ever want to read about.

Silica causes lung cancer and silicosis, a disabling, non-reversible, and sometimes fatal lung disease, which can develop or progress even after exposure has ceased. OSHA has estimated that about 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing. Like most occupational illnesses and injuries, silicosis is preventable.

In keeping with scientific evidence, in 2011 OSHA sent a proposed tightening of its 40-year old silica standard to the Office of Management and Budget. In 2013, OMB gave OSHA the green light to actually propose the new rule, which OSHA promulgated as a final rule in March 2016, with an effective date of June 23, 2016. Industries were given different timelines to comply with most requirements—one year for construction, two years for general industry, and five years for hydraulic fracturing. In its fact sheet on the final rule, OSHA noted that “Many employers are already implementing the necessary measures to protect their workers from silica exposure. The technology for most employers to meet the new standards is widely available and affordable.”

So call me gobsmacked when in April 2017 OSHA decided to delay enforcement in the construction industry by another three months. That may not sound like a lot, but tell that to construction workers who may already have been breathing dangerous levels of silica dust for years. And call me crazy, but my confidence in OSHA sticking with even that schedule is somewhat shaken.

You’ll see why when you see how the administration has turned a two-month delay in implementing its new protective standards for workers exposed to beryllium into a proposal to “modify” (read “weaken”) protections for workers exposed to beryllium in construction and shipyards. I won’t rehash it here, as I’ve already covered it here and here.

The CRA could be used to undo important public health protections that are vital to protecting the most vulnerable populations.

The scientific evidence that ground-level ozone has serious health impacts is beyond dispute.

The EPA gives states a breather on ozone. People will suffer the consequences.

The EPA has been regulating ozone as a criteria pollutant since National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established in the Clean Air Act in 1970—and with considerable success.

Levels of ground-level ozone, the main component of in smog, have declined over time. Though many people still live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, the decline is evidence that air pollution requirements are working.

Good thing, as the scientific evidence that ground-level ozone has serious health impacts is beyond dispute. It increases the frequency of asthma attacks, can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and worsens bronchitis and emphysema. It can increase risk of lung infections. And it has been associated with early deaths from cardiovascular disease. Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are especially vulnerable.

For some current context:

  • The American Lung Association reports that more than one-third (36 percent) of the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution. Approximately 116.5 million people live in 161 counties that earned an F for ozone in this year’s report.
  • CDC national and state surveillance systems estimate that 8.4% of children under the age of 18 have asthma and that 4.7% of children between 0 and 4 years of age currently have asthma. And the number of reported missed school days among children with asthma was 12.4 million in 2003, 10.4 million in 2008, and 13.8 million in 2013.

Nearly five years ago, in 2013, scientists on the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board recommended that the EPA tighten its ozone standard, which was 75 parts per billion (ppb) at the time.  The experts recommended a range of 60-70 ppb, while noting that the upper level is likely not to provide the adequate margin of safety required by the Clean Air Act; that is, a 70 ppb standard was likely not protective enough of public health.

The politics involved in lowering the standard were fraught (no surprise here), with courts eventually weighing in. After years of foot dragging, the EPA issued a final rule (with a 70 ppb standard) in late 2015. In June 2017 the EPA decided to give the states another year to comply with the long-awaited standard, noting the increased regulatory burden and increased costs to business. But it’s not like states and businesses have not seen this coming. It’s been years in the making. Indeed, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board first recommended a range 60-70 ppb back in 2007!

In the meantime, it’s people that will take the hit. Too many kids and others will continue to break out their inhalers, visit emergency rooms, and lose time at school and at work. The delay may work for some interests, but certainly not for public health.

And the latest: On July 18, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would delay enforcement of the EPA ozone standard until the middle of the next decade, giving companies an additional 10-year reprieve on complying with the new ground-level ozone (a.k.a. smog) health standards. The bill also permanently alters the Clean Air Act’s timetable for updating air quality safeguards. It will likely face opposition in the Senate, but is just the latest signal that our air quality and public protections are under attack. (A similar provision has also been included in the House Interior spending bill as an ideological rider.)

Heavy metal:  Nothing to sing about

The serious and permanent consequences of lead exposure on children’s brains, development, and behavior have been known for decades. Its effects cannot be corrected; they will affect kids’ lives forever. Photo credit: CDC

It doesn’t take a toxicologist to know that heavy metals—like mercury and lead, and metalloids like arsenic—are not good for your health. Their ill effects have been known for hundreds of years.

In the 1800s, mercury exposure caused mad hatter’s disease in workers making felt hats. Industrial waste water containing methyl mercury was the source of two devastating outbreaks of neurological disease in Minimata, Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. And today, it’s common knowledge that eating fish and shell fish from mercury-contaminated waters pose dangerous risks to the developing fetus.

When it comes to lead, its serious and permanent effects on children’s brains, development, and behavior have been known for decades; even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, ability to concentrate and pay attention, language and communication fluency, and academic achievement.  And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected; they will affect kids’ lives forever. (Lead toxicity has been known since ancient times; it was described by the Greek physician Nicander as far back as the second century B.C.)

Government regulations eliminated lead in household paint in 1978 and in gasoline in the late 1980s. The ongoing crisis in Flint brings lead exposure to the present day. The CDC estimated that more than a million US children had lead poisoning when, in keeping with the science, it lowered its definition of poisoning to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in 2012.

Federal and state agencies provide lead screening, surveillance, and prevention programs, and continue to identify lead contamination in homes and children with unacceptable levels of lead in their blood. A quick web search will identify sources of state and even local data.  See, for example, here, here and here.

And about that metalloid (and human carcinogen) arsenic. In establishing its enforceable maximum contaminant level for arsenic in drinking water in 2001, the EPA reported that in the US, approximately 13 million individuals lived in areas with a concentration of inorganic arsenic in the public water supply that exceeds its concentration limit of 10 micrograms per liter (μg/L ).

You would think the established science about the hazards, and the current knowledge about populations at risk, would have the Trump administration actively pursuing public health protections in its desire to make America great again. Instead, we are seeing delays, repeals, and rollbacks.

In November 2016, Obama’s EPA issued a final regulation under the Clean Water Act to limit the amount of these and other toxic metals that power plants can release into public waterways. The EPA noted that due to their close proximity to these waterways and the relatively high consumption of fish, some minority and low-income communities face greater risk. reports that, according to the Water Keeper Alliance, nearly 35% of coal plants discharge toxic pollution within five miles of a downstream community’s drinking water intake and that 81% of coal plants discharge within miles of a public drinking water well.

Flying in the face of solid scientific evidence on the need to protect the public and public waterways from these toxic pollutants and siding with the polluting industry, in April 2017 Trump’s EPA announced it would delay and reconsider this regulation. Mr. Pruitt actually said that the delay would be in the public interest. I’m still trying to get my head around that one.

In a related but somewhat earlier action, Congress beat the EPA to the punch in striking a blow related to these toxic materials. In February, using the Congressional Review Act, our elected representatives repealed the 2016 Department of Interior Stream Protection Rule that would safeguard streams and provide communities with basic information about water pollution related to mountain top removal coal mining.

Read enough?

Sorry that this “snapshot” of a blog has turned into quite a large collection of worrisome examples. Our new report covers even more Trump administration actions that will impact public and worker health—and not in a good way. It also suggests steps we and others can take to hold the administration accountable when it prioritizes public health over bad actors in the private sector.

Most important is that we not lose hope or become inured to or exhausted by what is likely to be an ongoing assault on science, public health, and some of the fundamental elements of our democracy. It will be important to call out and speak out against such actions (and inactions) when you see them.We will do our best to track them, but we also need and value your help. So when you see something, let us know.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is in it for the long haul.