Science in the News: Why the EPA Matters

The Headline, 3 February 2017, United States Congress // H.R. 861 – To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), after an article published in the New York Times raised questions around Trump’s pick to head the FDA.

This week, I want to write about the US Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA. I will not talk about the newly-appointed leader of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, and the possible implications it may have. Instead, I will focus on the EPA itself. Why is it important, and why is there an attempt to shut it down?

// DDT, a Cautionary Tale?

In the second world war, soldiers and civilians were becoming sick or dying en masse from malaria (from mosquitoes) and typhus (from lice). DDT, a compound that had first been discovered in the 1870s, was found to be incredibly effective as a insecticide. It was sprayed over cities, planes carrying DDT dumped it over large areas, trucks carrying DDT drove around to spray DDT on beaches. Hand-held devices could spray a person’s hair, skin, clothes.

A U.S. Soldier demonstrates the use of DDT-hand spraying equipment. Image courtesy of the CDC (ID# 2621).

Within days, whole populations of mosquitoes and lice were killed off, and the public health emergency began to fade. In 1948, Paul Müller, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the use of DDT as an effective insecticide.

“Since those days DDT has been used in large quantities in the evacuation of concentration camps, of prisoners and deportees. Without any doubt, the material has already preserved the life and health of hundreds of thousands. Currently DDT treatment is the sovereign remedy the world over for the prophylaxis of typhus.” ~Nobel Prize Presentation Speech by Professor G. Fischer

Various studies have linked exposure to DDT with pancreatic cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, low birth weight, and neurotoxicity (damage to the nervous system, like your brain and your nerve cells). Exposure to DDT can also cause birds’ eggs to have thinner shells, and since it is not very soluble in water, it can bioaccumulate (meaning that animals can slowly take up more of it over time) and it can biomagnify (meaning that bigger animals eat smaller animals, and the DDT in the smaller animals is now added to the DDT that the larger animal has, increasing up the food chain).

// Nanomaterials, an Emerging Technology

Part of the danger of the DDT story was that the health and environmental effects of DDT were not fully understood before it was widely used. These effects were instead discovered after the chemicals were sprayed into the environment, and since DDT degrades very slowly, those effects can still be seen today.

In an effort to understand environmental toxicity before products make their way to the market, the EPA (along with the National Science Foundation) funded two Centers for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (the UC CEIN and CEINT). The idea behind these research centers is this: nanomaterials offer unique opportunities in consumer products — they can shrink electronics, they can allow researchers to specifically deliver chemicals for disease treatment — but the toxicity of nanomaterials is not yet well understood. By examining many different types of nanomaterials (called nanomaterial “libraries”), these research centers have developed a better understanding of the chemical and physical properties of nanomaterials that make them toxic. Why is this important? By understanding the components of a material that make it toxic, researchers can purposefully design nanomaterials without these properties in an effort to reduce environmental toxicity.

// The Importance of the EPA

It seems logical that there should exist some entity that makes sure that we do not poison people or the environment (which is where we and other animals live, and where we grow our food), but regulations can make many things more complicated and more expensive. For manufacturing companies to properly collect and dispose of their liquid waste to prevent it from ending up in the environment (like with chromium contamination in Hinkley, California), this means spending more money and either having a lower profit or passing on costs to consumers via raised prices.

Burning fuels like oil and charcoal, are not only “dirty” (they cause pollution in the environment), they are also finite. Since fossil fuels are produced over millions or hundreds of millions of years, we are consuming them at a rate that is not sustainable. In order to ensure energy for future generations, it is important to invest in alternative fuel sources. But these are more expensive. They are less efficient than burning fossil fuels.

Ending the EPA (or ending the ability of the EPA to regulate companies) would have major implications worldwide. Companies would, in theory, be allowed produce harmful emissions at will (and remember that dirty air produced over one city will not stay there — it will be carried around the planet). This could trigger an even more rapid global climate change (more on this soon!), and could also contribute to human health problems (for example respiratory problems associated with increased pollution).

This is a dangerous proposal. At best, it undermines the science that calls for continued environmental protection and regulation. At worst, it endangers environmental and human health.

// If you are a US citizen and want to discuss this (or any other) topic with your elected representatives, you can find more information at the website.


*Disclaimer: in my work as the Education Coordinator for the University California Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, I am paid by grant monies provided from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This piece reflects my own beliefs, not necessarily those of the EPA and NSF. I was not compensated in any way for this article.