How EPA Budget Cuts Could Affect Public Health

The Atlantic
By Christine Todd Whitman
March 31, 2017

Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, described the administration’s new spending proposal as a “hard-power budget,” and by design it echoes President Trump’s top campaign priorities—namely, national security. But to create additional funding for defense programs and immigration enforcement, the budget would cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent.

The EPA isn’t the only agency slated to suffer, but it is absorbing the largest blow. Faced with a cut of $2.6 billion, it would stand to lose approximately one-third of its total budget, cutting its resources to the lowest level in 40 years, adjusted for inflation. The cuts to the EPA are significantly greater than those suggested by congressional Republicans—who proposed a modest $291 million cut from former President Obama’s last budget request—and they’re achieved in part by eliminating 3,200 positions, one-fifth of the staff.

Beyond the raw numbers, the unprecedented budget cuts to the EPA would pose a great danger to Americans’ lives if enacted. Practically speaking, funding for climate-change research would be axed, public-health programs would be effectively defunded, state environmental programs would be closed, and regional projects would end. Make no mistake: Human health would be endangered.

There are a number of health risks inherent to the proposed budget cuts, thanks in part to Trump’s promises to leave only “a little bit” of federal regulations. For example, the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention runs a program that screens and tests endocrine disruptors, which are harmful chemicals that pose a threat to reproductive health and children’s growth and development. Under the Trump budget, funding for this program would be cut from $7.5 million to $445,000—rendering the program inoperable and ineffective. Trump also wants to significantly cut the federal radon program to the tune of 80 percent. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is believed to cause lung cancer and is linked to 21,000 deaths annually. An estimated one in 15 homes has high levels of the gas, and this small program promotes radon testing in homes.

Pollution poses an undeniable threat to public health, as the Supreme Court has validated. A 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study reported that roughly 19,000 more people die prematurely from automobile pollution each year than die in car accidents. The same year, Harvard University researchers found that pregnant women living in areas with elevated levels of air pollution “were up to twice as likely” to have an autistic child, compared with women in low-pollution locations. And a new study released in January found that air pollution increases the risk and expedites the onset of dementia and other forms of cognitive decline.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 was designed to control air pollution on a national level by authorizing the development of comprehensive regulations to limit emissions. It has been extremely successful—between 1970 and 2015, “aggregate national emissions [of] six common pollutants alone dropped an average of 70 percent,” the EPA reports. A summary report of the benefits and costs associated with the act estimates that public and private spending to reduce pollution will reach approximately $65 billion annually by 2020. By contrast, the economic benefits are estimated to reach approximately $2 trillion dollars in 2020 alone. Yet under Trump’s proposed budget—despite the public-health and economic advantages—funding for the Clean Air Act would be cut in half.

Perhaps the greatest threat the new budget poses is to several vital bodies of water. Trump’s budget would reduce funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI, by more than 90 percent, from $300 million to $10 million. The GLRI is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. The EPA partners with federal agencies and provides local grants to achieve its goals of targeting and eliminating threats to the Great Lakes’ ecosystem, and fostering a safe environment for natural habitats and species. One of the program’s focuses is to restore “areas of concern”—areas that have been damaged by decades of industrial pollution. The EPA has effectively improved several areas so that they could be removed from the concern list.

The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater source in the world. Comprising 84 percent of North America’s surface freshwater and 21 percent of the world’s supply of surface freshwater, the Great Lakes provide drinking water to approximately 40 million people in the United States and Canada. We must remember that Lake Erie used to spontaneously combust because it was so polluted—cutting the GLRI will result in significant increases in pollution and a return to some of the same problems that plagued this significant source of clean water for years to come. Surely in the wake of the Flint water crisis—where lead leached into the Michigan city’s water supply after officials switched its source to the Flint River to cut costs—we can recognize this is not a risk worth taking.

In addition to the GLRI, Trump’s proposed budget eliminates funds to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which coordinates the efforts of the six bay-watershed states in meeting pollution-reduction goals. Those states have tried to come to an agreement on how to manage the watershed, but to no avail, which is why the EPA’s coordinating role is so essential. Reversing the progress the bay has achieved would lead to poor water quality, unhealthy fish, and the destruction of the economies that depend on those fish.

This “hard-power budget,” aimed at “decreasing the power of government in Americans’ lives,” as Trump said on the campaign trail, poses a threat to the health and well-being of all Americans. As Congress considers its own spending proposals to counter the president’s, lawmakers must reject Trump’s cuts to the EPA—for the sake of all Americans’ health.