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A new day for the Environmental Protection Agency

A new day for the Environmental Protection Agency
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On March 10, the Senate made history by confirming Michael ReganMichael ReganOvernight Energy: EPA takes major step to battle climate change Carper asks EPA to require half of new cars to be zero-emissions by 2030 EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases MORE as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President BidenJoe BidenCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Manchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE. His confirmation is momentous — Regan is the first Black man to lead the agency in its 50-year history. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, ensuring access to breathable air and clean water for all has never been so important. With Regan at the helm, the EPA can now act swiftly to address environmental injustices, protect public health and rein in pollution from fossil fuels.

Climate, environmental justice and public health are inextricably intertwined. As nurses, we see this connection every day. Low wealth communities and communities of color are often located in the shadows of oil and gas fields, refineries and other polluting industries. These communities bear a disproportionate burden of negative health impacts from this environmental contamination. For example, communities of color face disproportionate levels of air pollution, leading to higher rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses. This chronic exposure to pollution is further compounded by the threat of inadequate health care access.

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Regan has spent his career fighting for clean air and water. Few people know more about the public health emergency posed by toxic “forever chemicals” than Regan, who led complex negotiations regarding the cleanup of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) water contamination and issued the largest civil penalty in North Carolina’s history. Regan also negotiated the historic coal ash settlement after the largest coal ash cleanup in the United States. It only takes short-term exposure to coal ash to bring on irritation of the nose and throat, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and a variety of cancers. Additionally, Regan established an environmental justice advisory board that worked closely with North Carolina’s Republican legislature.

Regan is the best person to protect public health, eliminate pollution and help the Biden administration meet the goals of an equitable and just transition to a clean and prosperous economy. His entire career has been centered on protecting communities disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Through the creation of the state advisory board and by holding corporate polluters accountable, he has championed underrepresented communities and is committed to racial and environmental justice. 

Regan will take a leading role in Biden’s bold and unprecedented climate policy by reinstating and expanding pollution safeguards, jumpstarting our clean energy economy and placing an emphasis on equity and environmental justice. 

As nurses, we know the importance tackling climate change plays in protecting public health. We applaud the senators who voted to confirm Regan to lead the EPA. However, the work is far from over. The EPA is staffed by thousands of dedicated professionals committed to our environment and the protection of public health. At the uppermost levels of the agency, Regan will need a strong team of fellow appointees to serve alongside him. It starts with Janet McCabe, who was nominated to serve as deputy EPA administrator. She has a proven track record of reaching across the aisle to protect our air and water.

A driven and fully-functioning EPA, with leaders like Regan and McCabe, will be key to fulfilling the promises of Biden’s early executive orders, tackling the climate crisis and ensuring EPA is fulfilling its mission to protect health and the environment. 

Katie Huffling is the executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. She works with nurses and national nursing organizations on a variety of environmental health issues including climate change, inclusion of environmental health into nursing education and sustainable health care.