Oge, who served as the director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, is the author of Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars.
The Trump Administration’s 2018 budget proposal takes direct aim at the Environmental Protection Agency. If adopted, the budget would cut the EPA’s funding by 31%, with most of the reductions concentrated in programs that study pollution and environmental toxins, and write and enforce rules to protect public health. Those programs would see as much as a 42% reduction.
It can be hard to understand the life-and-death impact this would have. The dollar values and percentages feel inhuman. Even the marches with the broad message on behalf of “science” can feel distant. But behind all the statistics produced by scientists and researchers lie human stories.
Here’s just one of those stories. When Heather Von St. James was growing up in the 1970s, my friends have told me, she borrowed her dad’s work coat to do her outdoor chores. The jacket was warm, but was also covered in a grey dust, residue from his job sanding down drywall taping compound. At the time, neither Heather nor her dad realized that drywall contained asbestos — fibers closely linked to certain types of cancer.
Thirty years later, Heather was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer that destroys the lining around the lung, sometimes also affecting the heart, abdomen and genitals. Although Heather had given birth to a baby girl just three months earlier, her world was immediately taken over by medical procedures to save her life.
Heather’s left lung and half of her diaphragm were removed along with the lining of her right lung and a rib. The diaphragm and lining of her heart were replaced with Gore-Tex. She embarked on a four-month session of chemotherapy, as well as six weeks of radiation treatments.
Most people don’t survive longer than five years after diagnosis but, for the past 11 years, Heather has beaten the odds. Even still, there have been enormous costs. Her daughter has grown up with the knowledge that the mesothelioma could still quickly claim her mother’s life. Because she spent so much time in treatment, the only memories Heather has of her daughter’s first 18 months are from photographs.
There are countless stories of families torn apart by cancer, but Heather’s is different in two important ways. First, she can be reasonably sure what caused her cancer: 80% of pleural mesothelioma cases are a result of exposure to asbestos. Second, preventing her exposure to asbestos at an early age would have been easy. If her father, who died of cancer a few years ago, had known that the dust on his jacket would give his daughter cancer, he never would have let her wear it. But neither of them had the information they needed to make that link.
This sort of lack of information and misinformation is exactly what drives people to demand science-based government policy. Though the link between asbestos and cancer has been known for decades — Australia banned one form of the fiber all the way back in 1967 — the United States remains one of the few developed countries not to completely ban the material despite its deadly impacts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicates that from 1999–2015, 45,221 deaths have occurred because of asbestos. Last year, Congress acted to strengthen a 40-year-old law that regulates chemicals like asbestos, and last year, the EPA identified asbestos as a priority chemical to review and control.
This long-overdue progress towards eliminating the health impacts of killers like asbestos is now up in the air under Trump. The President claimed in his 1997 book The Art of the Deal that asbestos is “100 percent safe,” and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt during his confirmation hearings said that asbestos needed further “risk evaluation.” To make things worse, Pruitt has handed off the job of guiding the EPA’s regulatory actions towards chemicals like asbestos to Nancy Beck, the policy head of an industry group that represents the chemical industry.
In addition to Beck’s close financial and personal links to the industry she is meant to regulate, she is also known for her political editing of the findings of government scientists during the George W. Bush administration. When she served as toxicologist, risk assessor and policy analyst for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, she was the subject of an investigation by the House Science and Technology Committee. The investigation found that Beck had edited edit an EPA statement in ways that “appear to enhance uncertainty or reduce profile of the [harmful] effect being discussed.”
Air pollution prematurely kills about 200,000 people annually in the U.S. and as many as 6.5 million worldwide. Putting people like Pruitt and Beck in charge to protect public health from hazardous pollutants shows a dangerous antipathy towards science. What’s worse, the Trump Administration’s proposed 31% cut to the EPA’s budget will further curtail the agency’s ability to research, regulate and educate Americans on the health risks we face.
Asbestos is only one of about 1,000 chemicals in our everyday life that need to be reviewed by the EPA, including 90 chemicals known to pose risks including cancer, reproductive effects, endocrine disruption and developmental risks. One of the key programs proposed for to be cut is the Integrated Risk Information System, a program used to analyze toxic chemical exposure risk. The possibility of eliminating this program have led many to wonder if the EPA will be able enforce the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act — a comprehensive set of chemical safety laws, passed last year.
If the proposed EPA budget reductions are implemented, we will see more stories like Heather’s of people’s lives destroyed by conditions that could have been prevented.