EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler is a risk to public health

EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler is a risk to public health
© Stefani Reynolds

Andrew Wheeler, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, does not seem to be interested in protecting the public’s health or the environment. Indeed, since replacing Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Flint residents can sue EPA over water crisis | Environmentalists see victory with Green New Deal blitz | March global temperatures were second hottest on record | EPA told to make final decision on controversial pesticide Court orders EPA to make final decision on banning controversial pesticide Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt registers as lobbyist in Indiana MORE and stepping in as acting administrator, Wheeler has steadily moved to make the environment less safe while increasing risks to our health.

By any reasonable measure, Wheeler has set the agency on a backward march toward the past when the air, water and land were dirtier, creating unhealthy environments for people across the United States.

Health professionals are rightly sounding the alarms. As a public health professional, I know how dangerous it can be when industry polluters dictate EPA’s decisions. If successful, Wheeler’s efforts could potentially lead to thousands of additional premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of additional asthma attacks, strokes, heart attacks and cancers.

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Among the worst actions taken to date are:

  • Undermining the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, a safeguard instituted to protect children from dangerous neurotoxins and carcinogens spewed by coal-fired power plants. The rule has been in place for years and by EPA’s own calculation saves up to 11,000 lives per year. Yet, Mr. Wheeler has targeted the standards, putting vulnerable newborns and children most at risk.
  • Attacking clean car standards. Climate change is a direct threat to the health of our planet, and the transportation industry is now the No. 1 source of emissions in the United States. Clean car standards keep billions of tons of greenhouse gases from reaching our air and further endangering our climate. Wheeler, however, is looking to freeze current standards and stall efforts to abate global warming.
  • Weakening toxic chemical laws. A 2016 congressional triumph saw bipartisan support for much needed reform of our country’s outdated chemical laws. Now, Wheeler is systematically undermining that public health victory by failing to implement transparency requirements and allowing EPA to ignore known exposures to dangerous chemicals when evaluating their risks. The result would be less rigorous safety evaluation and control of new and existing chemicals while consumers, who are often unaware of the potentially dangerous chemicals in many household products, are left in the dark.
  • Increasing emissions from power plants. The Obama-era Clean Power Plan established the nation’s first limits on carbon pollution from power plants in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions harmful to our planet. The Trump administration has proposed an alternative plan that would result in as many as 1,400 additional premature deaths per year by 2030 in addition to increasing asthma and other respiratory diseases.
  • Many other protections are being dismantled, including: weakening national standards on oil and methane pollution, delaying landfill pollution reductions, denying state petitions for relief from downwind pollution, disbanding EPA’s independent air pollution health expert panel, weakening carbon pollution standards for new coal-fired power plants, weakening health science reviews of smog standards, delaying reductions of soot from wood smoke pollution, and stalling a ban on a deadly paint stripper, methylene chloride. Most recently, Wheelers EPA has failed to adequately protect our drinking water from two known toxic chemicals; putting millions of people at risk.

The consequences of Wheeler officially taking the helm of EPA are grave. His agenda would mean more pollution in children’s lungs, more contaminants in our communities, and more greenhouse gases putting our planet at risk. This could lead to more sickness and more death. In 2019, in the United States, with the ready ability to reduce pollution and keep families safe and healthy, this is a travesty.

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There is much room for debate on the best way to achieve environmental safeguards but over many years Democratic and Republican administrations alike have understood that the basic goal of EPA is to protect the environment and health. The administrator of EPA must completely embrace this mission and lead not only the agency but also all sectors of our society toward the goals of the EPA. Wheeler does not. His track record in the last six months as acting administrator leaves little need to speculate about what kind of administrator Wheeler would be.

As Wheeler continues his nomination process, it is imperative that senators protect their constituents by holding him to this standard with a careful examination of Wheeler’s track record. Wheeler’s agenda would fail to protect our health and environment — the most important standard for assuming the job on a permanent basis.

Americans deserve better and we should demand better.

Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., is the executive director of American Public Health Association.