With our collective gaze distracted by impeachment hearings, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is engaging in serious mischief. Word has leaked that the agency is poised to finalize a rule to limit the types of scientific studies that can be used to create new regulations.
Why would we want to limit the use of the best available science in decisions about air pollution, chemical safety, lead exposure and more? The flawed rationale for the rule is that these studies are “not transparent” because they cannot release their raw data, which contains confidential information such as personal health data. This is pretext. Tragically, the real reason to undermine the effectiveness of the EPA is to support industry’s bottom line at the expense of the public’s health.
This is where a history lesson is useful. Because the battle to protect the public’s health against industry-driven efforts to limit regulations by minimizing and instilling doubt in science — to maximize profits — is not new. In fact, a battle born almost a century ago is at the crux of our biggest environmental crises today.
At that time, Alice Hamilton, a physician, scientist and social justice pioneer warned that the widespread introduction of lead in gasoline would have a catastrophic impact on public health.
Hamilton’s opponents? General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil. Both the petrochemical and automobile industries, which had risen together in the 1920s and emerged to form an economic backbone of the United States, had much to gain by the use of leaded gasoline. It was found to make a car run more smoothly — and eliminate engine knocking. And they had a lucrative patent.
Led by GM’s renowned engineer, Charles Kettering, and industry apologist Robert Kehoe, the auto company developed its own patented leaded fuel called tetraethyl lead. As soon as the “improved” gasoline was announced, public health experts began writing about the dangers of lead. An anti-lead movement rose up and gained ground in the aftermath of a tragedy. In October 1924, noxious fumes poisoned and killed workers in a section of a Standard Oil refinery in New Jersey where the new gasoline was being made. Several exposed workers were straitjacketed after exhibiting psychotic behavior — paranoid delusions, hallucinations and violence, all manifestations of acute lead poisoning.
For the remainder of 1924 and most of 1925, the public health debate about lead in gasoline was one of the sharpest and most heated in the early century. Hamilton, who had recently become the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard University in any field and the nation’s foremost lead expert, became the principal opponent. In a flurry of op-eds and speeches, she pushed GM to find a better and safer alternative to lead. Pushing back, GM and Standard Oil claimed that Hamilton and other anti-lead activists were “hysterical.”
The surgeon general, Hugh Smith Cumming, held a conference to resolve this public health conflict. Hamilton and the anti-lead activists looked on in horror as one industry rep and “medical expert” after another was trotted out by their opponents to claim the safety of lead, arguing that leaded gasoline was a “gift of God.” Kehoe made a diabolical offer: GM would discontinue the use of lead as soon as it was proved to be harmful.
Falling into bed with industry, a dangerous public health precedent was born. Today, we call it the Kehoe Paradigm, describing the need to show evidence of harm before deeming something is unsafe. This truly bizarre “innocent until proven guilty” practice for poisons launched our country in the wrong public health direction, undermining the very concepts undergirding public health: prevention and precaution.
The Kehoe Paradigm has proved to be dangerous and even deadly. It allowed for the unchecked use of thousands of chemicals such as dioxin, asbestos and PFAS. And lead has silently poisoned generations of children. Even though there was plenty of evidence that lead was a poison — dating back to ancient times — it wasn’t until 1965, when 90 percent of all gasoline contained lead, that Clair Patterson, a geochemist at Caltech, while conducting unrelated research (trying to figure out the age of Earth), successfully proved man-made global lead contamination.
Patterson’s work paved the way for much-needed regulatory change in the 1970s. The government began phasing out the use of lead in paint — first with the passing in 1971 of the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, followed in 1978 by the federal ban on consumer uses of all lead paint. Needing to adhere to the precedent set by Kehoe, there was still much follow-up to do, and scientists continued to demonstrate the cruel impact of lead on the bodies and brains of developing children, the hardest hit by the powerful neurotoxin, to build upon such regulation.
Slowly, way too slowly, regulations became stronger and more protective, but only if harm was “proven,” with industry always asking for more science and more research. It wasn’t until very recently that it has become clear to scientists there is no safe level of lead. And this game-changing work was done with the same kind of population-wide studies (derived from raw data that included patient-protection information) that the EPA’s proposed rule is now seeking to dismiss.
The new EPA rule makes the Kehoe Paradigm even more dangerous because it limits the scientific research that can be used to prove harm. This rule is nothing less than an industry-driven and government-sanctioned straitjacket of science and scientists.
As a society, we rely on the EPA to make decisions necessary to protect our health and environment based on the best available science. This expectation is embedded in the mission of the agency. Sadly, the EPA already falls short of that responsibility when it is unable and unwilling to enforce current regulations of toxins and pollutants that disparately harm our most vulnerable communities.
As I know from my work in Flint, Mich., when the EPA succeeds, people are protected. When the EPA fails, people get sick. When it comes to toxins in our environment or the bodies of children, we need the EPA to be strong, smart and swift — to act quickly, decisively and accurately — utilizing the best available science. However, when government regulations are captured by industries craving ever more profit, the cost is, as it always has been, our health and our children’s health.