President Trump’s chaotic cruelty toward migrant children and their families dominates the news, but his administration is also sabotaging the health and future well-being of our own children and grandchildren. In its zeal to enhance the profits of fossil-fuel, chemical, and other industrial polluters, this administration is exposing many millions of American children to dangerous and often life-threatening poisons and contaminants.
Lead, asbestos, poisonous insecticides, fossil-fuel emissions, and many other toxic pollutants contaminate our air, water, food, and homes. Children are much more vulnerable to these toxic substances than adults. Their central-nervous, immune, and other systems are still undeveloped, and exposure to toxic substances can cause irreversible damage; a child’s lungs are particularly sensitive. Even a fetus is at risk if a woman is exposed to toxins during pregnancy.
Our protection against these threats depends on the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and other anti-pollution laws. For all their foot-dragging and other faults, prior Democratic and Republican administrations did enforce these laws, significantly reducing some of the worst air and water hazards.
No more. Trump’s entire administration is packed with sworn enemies of the laws they are supposed to administer, but nowhere more so than at the EPA. Almost as ethically challenged as his boss, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, one of Trump’s earliest nominees, initially made his reputation as Oklahoma’s attorney general, where he filed 14 largely unsuccessful challenges to federal and state environmental regulations. At the EPA for nearly 17 months, Pruitt turned the agency over to fossil-fuel and other industry lobbyists, both within the agency and outside. Pruitt’s nonstop scandals became so embarrassing that he was forced to resign, leaving Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler as acting administrator.
This will likely produce not a change in policy but only in style. In his first statement to EPA employees, Wheeler told them he plans to continue the Pruitt-Trump agenda, and he’ll probably do it more effectively. Pruitt’s rush to cut regulations led to sloppy work and greased the skids for legal challenges; Wheeler is less likely to make such hasty mistakes. A savvy Washington operator for over 25 years, Wheeler began his career at the EPA and then for nearly two decades was a chief counsel for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the Senate’s most vehement climate-change denier. Between 2009 and 2017 Wheeler was a prominent lobbyist who represented many clients with business before the federal government, including the Domestic Fuels Solution Group, chemical manufacturer Celanese Corporation, and biodiesel producer Darling Ingredients; his main client was coal baron Robert E. Murray.
A good example of the danger posed by the EPA’s deregulatory push is its handling of chlorpyrifos, a widely used and very profitable Dow Chemical insecticide that can get into food, drinking water, and the air, causing children serious learning and memory damage. Originally developed by Nazi Germany as a nerve gas, chlorpyrifos disrupts the normal functioning of the brain’s nervous-system cells, producing tremors in children and lowering their IQ levels. Even before they are born, children can be harmed by chlorpyrifos if their mother eats fresh produce during pregnancy from a farm that uses the insecticide.
Infants are particularly susceptible. Six years ago, a crop duster sprayed the chemical over Bonnie Wirtz’s Melrose, Minnesota, home. Her son, who was an infant at the time, now has a neurodevelopmental disorder—one of the health risks that prompted EPA scientists to recommend chlorpyrifos be permanently banned from American farms. In response to those recommendations, along with lawsuits and public pressure from people like Wirtz, the Obama administration proposed a ban in 2015, but it had yet to be finalized by the time of Trump’s inauguration.
Shortly after he was confirmed, Pruitt rejected the EPA scientists’ recommendations, claiming that more study was required. Environmental groups sued, and in early August a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos within 60 days, since the agency offered “no defense” for the delay.
Lead is another toxic substance that the administration has neglected. Like chlorpyrifos, lead poisoning from paint and dust can damage a child’s brain. In fact, according to the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, there is “no safe blood lead level in children.” Its effects—reduced intelligence, inattentiveness, and aggression—can last years. One mother told a reporter that her “23-year-old son still suffered from the effects of elevated lead levels found in his blood” when he was 2. Even though its toxicity has long been known, lead paint is still present in millions of American homes, especially in public or old housing.
Pruitt declared a “war on lead” to much fanfare in 2017, but did very little. When the EPA was in court last August for failing to limit the lead in paint and dust, it asked for still another six years to decide what to do. The court refused, noting that the “EPA itself has acknowledged that lead poisoning is the number one environmental health threat in the U.S. for children ages 6 and younger, and that the current standards are insufficient.” The court ordered the agency to propose a new standard within 90 days and a final rule a year later. On June 22, 2018, the EPA finally proposed a standard for public comment.
Even if the EPA issues a strong final standard, it will not be enough to prevent or significantly reduce lead poisoning in the many hundreds of thousands of low-income children living in subsidized housing. This June, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development Inspector General each released a report severely criticizing HUD for “lack[ing] adequate oversight of” public and subsidized housing. HUD “lacked assurance that public housing agencies properly identified and mitigated lead hazards…thus increasing the potential for exposing children to lead poisoning,” the inspector general’s office wrote.
The EPA’s reluctance to regulate fossil-fuel emissions from cars and trucks, power plants, and other sources poses an equally great danger to children. Not only are greenhouse gasses warming the planet to perilous levels, but emissions from transportation and industrial facilities also include toxic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and harmful particulate matter. Exposure to these can produce developmental and cognitive problems in a child’s early years, as well as mental-health disorders and asthma and other respiratory ailments that can last well into the later years. Prenatal exposure can cause preterm births and reduce fetal growth.
To reduce these threats, the Obama administration and the automakers agreed that by 2025 cars and light trucks would obtain 54.5 miles per gallon. This is estimated to cut CO2 emissions by 6 billion tons and to save 12 billion barrels of oil over a vehicle’s lifetime.
The 54.5 gallon standard seemed readily achievable, but shortly after taking office Pruitt declared this standard too onerous. On August 2, 2018, the EPA formally recommended that the miles-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks be frozen after the 2020 model year, at which time the target will be approximately 42 mpg. If this rule does go into effect, an extra 1.25 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide could be released into the atmosphere by 2035. A recent analysis by two Harvard researchers based on the EPA’s own regulatory impact analysis also predicted that a cutback in the Obama auto-emission targets will result in 5,500 more deaths and 14,000 more child respiratory ailments over the next 10 years.
Such results don’t seem to trouble the EPA. Late in the afternoon on Friday, July 6—Pruitt’s last official day—the agency announced that it would allow a small group of manufacturers to resume full-scale production of trucks with old 1990s engines known as “gliders.” Gliders emit 40–55 times more pollution than a modern truck, and under an EPA rule that went into effect in January 2018, only 300 such trucks per year may be produced; an estimated 10,000 such gliders were produced in 2015. The agency also announced that it would not enforce the 300 limit, but on July 18 the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit imposed a stay on the EPA’s action, and a week later Wheeler abandoned it entirely.
Trump’s EPA has also moved to roll back the Clean Power Plan, which the Obama administration issued in order to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA had estimated that the plan would avert 4,500 deaths per year, as well as 90,000 asthma attacks among children. The Harvard researchers’ analysis also predicted that a repeal of the Obama Power Plan would produce an estimated 36,000 deaths and 630,000 extra cases of childhood respiratory problems over the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, last October, Pruitt announced that the Obama plan would be replaced, and the EPA held four sham “public listening” sessions. In West Virginia, a coal miner suffering from black-lung disease pleaded, “For the sake of my grandchildren and yours, I call on you to strengthen, not repeal, the Clean Power Plan.” In Missouri two speakers “lost their composure when they spoke about how much a repeal would hurt their grandkids,” according to The Kansas City Star. The testimony made little impact: On July 5 the agency proposed a new rule requiring only a few minor changes in how coal-fired plants should operate.
New laws affecting children have also been undermined. Two years ago a bipartisan coalition in Congress enacted legislation requiring the EPA to evaluate the potentially dangerous chemicals used in dry-cleaning solvents, paint strippers, metal degreasers, shampoos, deodorants, and cosmetics, in order to determine whether they should be restricted or banned entirely. The chemical industry fought to limit what would be analyzed, and it succeeded.
As Eric Lipton of The New York Times reported, the authors of the legislation wanted the EPA to examine all the ways in which humans are exposed to these chemicals, whether they are in the air, the ground, in drinking water, and by direct physical contact. Instead, the agency—whose toxic chemical unit is now headed by one of the industry lobbyists who had urged a limited evaluation—will usually analyze only direct contacts with the chemicals. According to Lipton:
The [EPA] approach means that improper disposal of chemicals—leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance—will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them. Cumulatively, the approach being taken for the 10 chemicals [currently being evaluated] means that the EPA’s risk analysis will not take into account an estimated 68 million pounds a year of emissions.
The EPA will also not evaluate certain extremely dangerous asbestos-like fibers in the air, nor the nearly 30 million pounds a year of asbestos deposited in hazardous landfills and dump sites.
The agency has also cut back on investigating and enforcing the laws against proven polluters, according to a Times study of the Trump EPA’s first nine months. During that period, the agency filed far fewer cases than either of its George W. Bush or Obama counterparts. Also, penalties imposed by the EPA amounted to only $50.4 million, compared to about $125 million for the same period under Obama and about $70 million under Bush. Local offices may no longer request information from suspected polluters without permission from Washington, and such requests have fallen sharply. “We are the boots on the ground and we just are having a hard time now getting the information we need to do our job,” a water-pollution officer in the Chicago office told the Times. As one former employee lamented, “The Pruitt EPA is cratering on the enforcement work that matters most: holding the biggest polluters accountable.”
Don’t Republicans have children and grandchildren?