Almost 40 years ago, The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper that turned everything doctors knew about lead exposure on its head. The paper reported the results of a series of studies including more than 2,000 children, from urban and suburban areas of Philadelphia and Boston, whose milk teeth were collected by a Harvard psychiatry professor dubbed “the Tooth Fairy.”
That high doses of lead exposure cause kidney and brain damage, anemia, and death was common knowledge. But these results, found by examining lead accumulation in the teeth, showed that even low-level exposures caused devastating damage to children’s academic success. The children living in urban neighborhoods, especially, had significantly lower attention spans, speech delays, and lower IQs.
In the following decades, the Tooth Fairy – more widely known as Dr. Herbert Needleman – found further evidence of long-term concerns. Eventually establishing a definite connection between minor lead poisoning and behavioral problems or violent crime among children, these findings prompted federal bans of lead-based paint, water pipes, gasoline, and other products.
Needleman went on to secure some of the most significant environmental health protections of the 20th century. By the early 1990s, the prevalence of lead among American children was five times lower. But along the way, his credibility was attacked repeatedly on grounds of “scientific misconduct” by the lead industry. In the wake of Needleman’s death last month, this problem is more relevant than ever before: how vested interests manage to overpower regulation.
What the Government Has Done to Protect Our Citizens
Despite a firestorm of industry opposition, lead regulation in the U.S. is a well-documented success. Federal efforts, including the distribution of letters, industry guidelines, and public health warnings, helped enlighten the public to the deadly risks of lead toxicity.
These initiatives were largely led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban lead-based paint and induced pivotal changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – and the Food and Drug Safety Administration (FDA), which mandates acceptable levels of lead in foods and water.
Together, the EPA and FDA have been charged for decades with managing many more of the world’s most toxic substances. However, regulation of some of these has been more successful than others.
Right now, it’s the EPA’s job – as per the new TSCA – to study 10 hazardous chemicals and substances, including the known carcinogen asbestos, and determine their suitability for use in the United States. The EPA will need to pay special attention to their effects on vulnerable populations: not just children, but also the elderly, pregnant women, those living in poverty, and industrial workers. Under the new TSCA, asbestos has been designated high priority.
Up Next for the EPA: A Long-Known Carcinogen
Up till recently, the TSCA was an instrument that asbestos corporations used for decades to justify deaths caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos, the only known cause of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, takes as many as 15,000 American lives annually. Mesothelioma alone is an aggressive and incurable cancer responsible for about 3,200 of these premature deaths. Yet, even though regulators and industrial companies were well aware of its dangers, the TSCA’s outdated law allows 1,000 metric tons of the substance to continue entering the U.S. every year.
A turning point finally came last November when the EPA decided to reopen investigations into asbestos exposure, after then-President Obama signed the monumental TSCA Reform Act months earlier. Considering the decades of American suffering at the hands of this deadly substance, this seemed a considerable step toward disposing of asbestos altogether, which is only partially banned. The move had the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.
But when President Donald Trump, who openly praised asbestos use, took office, anti-asbestos advocates were understandably concerned about the future of these new rules.
Deregulation Good News for Shady Business, but Bad for Public
In his first 100 days as president, Trump rolled back no fewer than 23 environmental rules – all in favor of industries that are willing to pay billions of dollars to ensure the law protects their products.
Next, he reinforced the EPA’s workforce with the likes of Scott Pruitt, who, before becoming Administrator, sued the agency on behalf of Big Business on multiple occasions. Nancy Beck, another key figure, was previously employed by major asbestos (and chemical) industry lobbyist group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Beck is now “very involved” in rewriting TSCA rules.
This made his path clear to buddy up with the ACC in sabotaging the EPA investigation with “supplementary information gathered from meetings with chlor-alkali industry representatives,” according to a risk evaluation methodology. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how the ACC, a group whose members provided 100 percent of America’s asbestos in 2016, might have angled this supplementary information.
A Downward Spiral for the EPA?
Whether updating legislature or forming new regulations, the EPA’s work in protecting the public from lethal poisons has constituted some of the government’s most critical activity. But under Trump’s governance and industry influence, many of these efforts are turning out to be in vain – even for the most basic protections.
“Almost no one likes regulation in the abstract,” said regulatory state expert Cass Sunstein, “but if we are speaking of food safety, highway safety, air pollution standards or protection of disabled people against discrimination, it makes no sense to take a meat ax to the administrative state.”
Protection from substances like asbestos is an urgent need that the EPA acknowledged after a decades-long battle. But now that the agency itself is so poisoned from the inside by conflicts of interest, it’s up to the public – including mesothelioma victims, their families, and others affected by asbestos – to ramp up the fight for a healthier America.