I had contemplated making a top ten list of 2017’s most toxic hits. But that would be depressing. This is just one year…or four. We won’t know just how far this administration can turn back the toxics protection clock, but for almost fifty or so years despite our constant worry about eating conventional berries or potatoes (depends); or whether we should wash our hands after pocketing that receipt (that’s a yes); or what’s in that lipstick you’ve been eating (yes, eating…think about it), we have enjoyed genearlly increasing levels of protection against the most egregious threats by way of federal regulation. (O.k. cosmetics not so much, but that’s another story.)
In 2010 on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. EPA the nonpartisan Aspen Group asked twenty environmental “thought” leaders to compile a list of EPA’s greatest achievements. Anyone alive in the 70s knows there’s been progress. And anyone alive today, knows there is plenty more to be done (like, yes there is cleaner water, lead is out of gasoline and communities have a right to know – but even now, a community in Michigan can suffer from lead in drinking water.) But if we’re looking back to give hope for the future here is that list as summarized in Scientific American back in 2010:
Banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.
Their report wraps up with gratitude for EPA’s dedicated staff and scientists. But these days, like the regulations, they too are disappearing. Corporate power has been setting roots in our capitol’s soil for decades. Trump and Pruitt have provided the perfect climate for growth. They are now like weeds pushing out the scientists and policy makers who once provided a protective buffer. In 2010, there were 18,000 employees. When Pruitt’s reign began, there were around 15,000. His goal is to drive that number down even further and he’s making good progress.
While we likely won’t be returning to the smog and burning rivers of the 1970s, today’s threats more subtle and insidious. Chemicals once deemed safe by 1970s standards are revealed to cross the placenta or enter the brain like plasticizers that wend their way into mother’s milk, or pesticides that are increasingly cling to staple foods.
But we also have an increasingly savvy and skeptical public. We are no longer enthralled by novel plastics or miraculous pesticides. New mom’s are no longer marveling over unbreakable plastic bottles, but asking what’s in them and why. We are consumers. We have at least that power. We also have a generation which has, unlike mine, grown up knowing that there are alternatives to oil, plastics, pesticides. A generation that is now stepping into leadership roles, and questioning business as usual. It’s like we’ve had a chemical feeding frenzy over the past seventy years, but now as we take stock in the pesticides, plastics and flame retardants in our fat, blood, urine and brains – there is no choice but to do better. When I graduated college, my roommate, an engineer, wanted to work on solar power. There were no jobs. Now that seems unimaginable. Let’s hope for the same from this rising class of business leaders , particularly those who will be manufacturing out clothes, cultivating our food crops and designing our homes.
That’s my hope for 2018. Let’s make Pruitt irrelevant.