What Is The EPA Doing Right Or Wrong

Gina McCarthy, MS and Thomas A. Burke, PhD

Earth On Fire In Water

Public health is rooted in recognition of the environment’s role in human health and disease. From the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century and the Great Sanitary Movement to today’s global threat of climate change and the Paris Agreement, the protection of public health depends on the protection of our environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a public health agency and a cornerstone of our nation’s environmental public health infrastructure. The core mission of the EPA is the protection of public health and the environment. Former Republican president Richard Nixon established the EPA in 1970 with strong bipartisan support from Congress. Since then, guided by a framework of national laws, the EPA has led national progress in improving air quality, cleaning up our waterways, reducing harmful pesticide exposures and industrial emissions, and providing support for states and communities to advance environmental health.


Today, as we move forward with the new Administration and Congress, there are troubling signs that the future of the EPA and the future of public health will be affected. The leader of the new Administration’s EPA transition team has recommended elimination of the EPA’s scientific research efforts and cuts in the agency’s expert staff from 15?000 to as low as 5000. In Congress, legislation (HR 861) has been introduced to terminate the EPA. It behooves all of us to sit up, take notice, and make our voices heard.


The EPA is a science agency. Our nation’s efforts to protect the environment are guided by science to spur innovation, support community infrastructure, respond to emergencies, characterize exposures and health effects, and communicate, prevent, and manage risks. The EPA Office of Research and Development is the heart of a national network to provide scientific support for EPA programs, regions, and our states, tribes, and communities.

EPA scientists work with other federal programs and agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

The EPA Office of Research and Development has also built partnerships with the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the Environmental Council of the States, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the National Environmental Health Association, and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. In addition, EPA grants support our national academic infrastructure, including our schools of public health, for world-class research and the education of our future leaders.


EPA science benefits all Americans and communities around the globe. Working with the Department of Energy, the EPA Energy Star program has brought energy efficient appliances to our homes, empowering consumers to save billions of dollars in energy costs while fueling our economy. The Brownfields Program has revitalized blighted communities. Community assistance grants help provide safe drinking water, supporting infrastructure from small systems in rural communities to our largest cities.

Working with NASA, EPA scientists track harmful algal blooms to protect our recreational and drinking water resources. And together with the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, EPA toxicologists are working with the Cancer Moon Shot initiative to understand and prevent risk factors for cancer in our troops.

Internationally, cookstove smoke contributes to a wide range of illnesses and four million premature deaths annually. The EPA is working with international partners to reduce harmful emissions and develop cleaner, sustainable cooking technologies.


Amid the current zeal for less regulation as justification for attacks on the EPA, it is important to emphasize that a healthy environment, healthy communities, and a healthy economy go hand in hand. Since the inception of the EPA 46 years ago, the United States has enjoyed significant progress in reducing public health effects from exposure to pollution, and our gross domestic product has tripled.

In the past eight years, this country recovered from the greatest recession since the 1930s while pushing down pollution, including carbon pollution that fuels climate change. It is a success story that deserves to be touted, celebrated, and supported to ensure that our collective success is sustained and enhanced.


The Clean Air Act has proven to be one of the most successful public health laws ever enacted, driving down air pollution by 70%. The revised national ambient air quality standard for ozone finalized in 2015 is projected to result in up to $5.9 billion in public health benefits by avoiding up to 660 premature deaths, 230?000 asthma attacks, and other adverse health effects each year the standard is met.

The Clean Power Plan, finalized in 2015, will drive down carbon pollution from the energy sector 32% below 2005 levels, sulfur dioxide emissions by 90%, and nitrogen oxide by 72%. The Clean Power Plan alone will prevent up to 3?600 premature deaths in 2030 and each year that follows, with net benefits of up to $45 billion in health care savings. It will enhance investment in clean energy technology and jobs. Today, clean energy is a driver of our economy, not a burden.


From extreme weather events to emerging infectious diseases, the public health community is on the front line to respond to the threats from our changing climate. Actions taken by the EPA to reduce carbon pollution using the Clean Air Act have clearly signaled to the international community the seriousness of the US commitment to addressing climate change.

That commitment fueled momentum that contributed to more than 195 nations coming together in Paris, France, in December 2015 to reach a historic agreement. It is disconcerting at best to hear signals coming from the new Administration that it questions the human contribution to climate change and, as a result, this country’s support for the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement.

The science is clear and robust. Climate change is perhaps the greatest long-term threat to our environment, public health, economy, and national security.


Science is the bedrock that supports and drives our public health progress. The transition in the White House has already brought troubling signs not just for the EPA but also for the broader scientific community. Cuts or elimination of research grants and contracts will weaken science capacity at the state and local levels, erode or eliminate university research, and devastate support for the education of our future science leaders.

Political interference in conducting scientific investigations, communication and publication of research findings, participation in scientific meetings, and the independence of the peer review process threatens scientific integrity and public trust. Most importantly, rollbacks of science-based rules on clean air, clean water, pesticides, and toxic chemicals have direct effects on public health, particularly of the most vulnerable. Public health professionals everywhere depend on scientific evidence to identify health risks and make science-informed decisions to keep our communities healthy. Attacks on science and denial of scientific evidence undermine the very core functions of public health.


Although we have made tremendous progress on addressing many environmental threats, today’s challenges are increasingly complex. From climate change to the protection of our air, water, and food, public health effects range from the global scale to our local communities. Environmental protection and public health are inextricably linked.

Shortsighted efforts to roll back environmental protection have lasting effects on our ecological resources and the health of our communities. Our nation needs strong support for our environmental health professionals at the local, state, and federal levels. We also need a strong EPA. It’s about protecting public health!