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EPA Renews Focus on Public Health

Words by Leon Kaye

Established in 1970 with the support of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in order to find solutions to reverse America’s water and air pollution woes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become a political football as of late. The agency’s current head, Gina McCarthy, was subjected a lengthy confirmation process in the Senate, which included answering over 1,100 questions, 600 of which came from Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana). The drama became so ridiculous that even Christine Todd Whitman, the administrator of the EPA under George W. Bush, lamented the hyper-politicization of McCarthy’s confirmation. Then last fall, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said he wanted Congress to impeach McCarthy over trumped-up charges of “perjury,” when the reality is that she was doing her job the way she saw fit.

Those battles aside, now McCarthy is calling for the EPA to take another step that is sure to drive Republicans insane. In an op-ed that celebrated the agency’s accomplishments over the past 45 years, McCarthy called for the EPA to take on more of a leadership role in public health. She seeks to add more health experts to the EPA’s staff, ensure public health care considerations are integrated into the EPA’s decision-making process, and find ways to work closer with other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The latter move is particularly important, as federal agencies are often perceived as behaving as personal fiefdoms instead of looking out for the public interest.

Such a call is hardly new. Almost 30 years ago, an academic study highlighted the fact that many of the EPA’s directives, as in tackling problems related to air and water pollution, were expressly designed to improve public health across the U.S. But as an independent agency, it is completely separate from the Department of Health and Human Services and its agencies such as the CDC and National Institutes of Health. So, while the EPA clearly has its public health mandates, it is, as is the case with many agencies, operating in its own silo -- lacking relatively few experts in public health.

Past EPA administrators have also asserted the EPA’s leading role in this country’s public health. Opponents in turn have claimed the agency’s mandate either has nothing to do with such policy or lacks any accomplishments compared to achievements in immunization and sanitation. Nevertheless, as many environmental and health advocacy groups posit, the stubborn fact is that pollution over the years has presented not only correlation, but causation, to health problems across the U.S. We see the result of lax oversight now with the ongoing Flint water crisis in Michigan; and the struggle with air quality is most acute here in California, where as many as seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the U.S. are located.

Meanwhile many mainstream global organizations, such as the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD), have highlighted the economic costs along with the health costs resulting from pollution. In any event, the EPA is highlighting more of its work and research related to public health, from the use of chemicals to even problems with bedbugs. The reality, however, is that federal employees -- with their agency heads leading by example -- need to reach across what they see as the boundaries of their agencies’ work. If McCarthy can really find a way to convince these multiple government departments to share resources and work together, that would be an accomplishment with which few on either side of the aisle would argue.

Image credit: U.S. EPA

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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