Great Philly Inquirer Series on the Environment

December 10, 2008

power plant

Today the Philadelphia Inquirer has the last portion of an in-depth series which is highly critical of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  The article suggests that political considerations throughout this decade have made it extremely difficult for the EPA to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Using mathematical modeling, it is possible to derive estimates of the potential public health benefit of a particular change in the law.  For instance, there is a mathematical relationship between particulate matter (PM) levels and adverse public health outcomes like asthma.  As the amount of PM in the air decreases, a number of health indicators improve.  If it can be shown that lowering the allowed amount of a pollutant in the air from one value to a lower value would likely result in improved human health, it would seem like a no-brainer to me that the standard should be adjusted.

The EPA has employed a severely flawed approach to its scientific work at times.  When a researcher is studying whether a potential new cancer drug is more beneficial to patients than a current treatment, the researcher has an obligation to completely stop the study and offer the new treatment to everyone if it becomes extremely obvious that the new treatment is light years ahead of the previous one in terms of how much it helps people.  It would just be ethically wrong to withhold a potential lifesaving medicine to some people just because they were randomly selected to be in the control group of the study.  In the same way, scientists have long established that lead exposure (in various forms) can result in severely negative health effects.  The EPA only recently lowered the standard for airborne lead to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter after some legal action. 

This is exactly the area that I find lobbying to be not only mildly inappropriate, but completely ethically wrong.  How can a battery recycler or a representative from an energy or manufacturing industry have the audacity to whine in front of the government and complain that having to meet more rigorous environmental standards will affect their bottom line?  Perhaps the current economic downturn will provide a natural experiment in environmental impacts in public health; it’s very possible that air pollution levels will improve in our country slightly with less manufacturing and energy use taking place during this recession period.

Barack Obama has a lot to work on once he assumes office in January.  I just hope that he places enough of a priority on the environment that some of the damage done under the tenure of a certain individual can be reversed.


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