Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dear Mr. Pruitt, let's talk about lead

Dear Mr. Pruitt,
Last week I wrote to you about DDT. This week let’s consider lead. Like DDT, another jaw-dropper for my environmental toxicology undergrads. You may not remember leaded gasoline. It was phasing out just as you were probably hitting the road. But I do, and I remember feeling good about asking for “unleaded” at the pump. Those were the days when the tetra-ethyl lead added to gas was called just “ethyl.” The manufactures, a combination of Dupont, Standard Oil and General Motors, branded their new company and their product with a young woman’s name, leaving out the second half – the lead — that literally drove men crazy if not to their death. The chemical helped gas burn more efficiently; a good thing. And it helped the oil industry dominate the automobile industry by pushing aside other possible fuels or fuel additives, like ethanol.
Lead is another opportunity to discuss the  struggle between those who tried to protect Americans and the nation’s workers and an industry that values profit over all. A struggle that is now something you must face almost daily. In this case Alice Hamilton, a tireless and pioneering advocate for worker health who, along with others, tried to get the lead out as early as 1925. This was just a year after workers at the so-called House of Butterflies died; one of them in a straitjacket, his brain poisoned by the additive. There is also the story of how tetra-ethyl, a product of American Industry, helped launch the Nazi Related imageLuftwaffe (leaded fuel was a necessity for their airplanes). And the story of how the industry, when asked by the surgeon general if public health impacts of the new additive had been considered, apparently assured him, sans any data, that the streets would be “…so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect..”*
Industry assurances and oil politics aside, I don’t need to exaggerate, advocate or hammer home the benefits of chemical regulation when it comes to lead.
Despite Hamilton and colleagues’ best efforts, the industry went on to use, at its peak in 1970, some 250,000 tons of lead in gasoline. That is hundreds of thousands of tons of lead pried from the earth’s crust and spewed into our air, water and soil. The sheer magnitude of lead used in gasoline was another shocker for students alerted to the problem of lead more recently via the recent news from Flint, Michigan and elsewhere. A generation who now equates lead with old pipes and drinking water. Those were the days when there was an average of 2-3 gramsof lead in every gallon of gasoline. My mother’s Country Squire, the old wood paneled station wagon, much like today’s Escalades, Land Cruisers and Suburbans (which have only slightly improved mileage) burned through about a gallon of gasoline every twelve miles. Living in the suburbs our family contributed plenty of lead to our neighborhood, the back streets of Boston and points north and south. (Back of the envelope: 10,000 miles of travel per year, 833 gallons of gas meant roughly 2000 grams, or 70 ounces of lead, a year.) Over the courses of my childhood, my mother’s car added a little less than my own body weight at the time, ninety pounds of lead,  to our environment. And that was just one car — my dad’s black VW bug (roughly 20 MPG) contributed it own fair share. I don’t think these  are numbers anyone could be proud of. No matter who you are, where you live or what political party you belong to.
Label for Ethyl Gasoline AdditiveBy the 1960’s the national average for lead in blood rose to somewhere around 600 parts per billion (we can’t blame this all on ethyl, our homes – inside and out – were coated in the stuff as well.) It’s likely that my sisters and I carried in our blood, lead levels that would now be considered high  – although most likely,  we were better off than kids living in the city. Today, we worry about children with blood lead over 50 parts per billion. We also know that aside from the more immediate poisonous effects, even in small amounts lead can lower children’s I.Qs and alter their behavior.
That my students were clueless about leaded gasoline, is, in large part thanks to the EPA. When your agency ordered manufacturers to phase-out lead and find a replacement, it was not only an EPA victory, but a victory for all Americans. Here is Carol Browner as the final nails hit the lead coffin in 1996:
The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time. Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation.
Why even talk about leaded gasoline? Because like DDT, this was another triumph of your agency. Another victory over powerful industries that put profits over human health. Lead is clearly still a problem – particularly for municipalities and homes with aging pipes and in too many cases lead paint – legacies from our earlier generations, that sadly keep on giving. But we all still use gasoline. And, both the automobile industry and the oil industry have retained if not grown in power over the decades. I would love to provide my students with current examples of good Corporate Citizens. I’d like to say, “That was then, this is now.” There is plenty of opportunity for the corporations that impact the quality of the air we breath and must hold  responsibility for our health and for our changing climate (I understand you disagree here – so I won’t belabor this point). With nearly a century of exposure to oil combustion products – the health-science is indisputable.  As you advocate for a smaller EPA, and consider the current CAFE (fuel economy) standards, I would very much appreciate some examples to share with my public health students, so that they can rest assured that they won’t be telling their students jaw-dropping stories from the time that EPA handed its authority over to big oil and the auto industry.
Featured Image: Sign on an antique gasoline pump, advertising gasoline additive (tetraethyl lead) by the Ethyl Corporation. Photo taken at the highway rest stop on I-94 westbound, east of Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. Plazak, 2010.
*Midgley, T. Jr., 1922, Letter to Cumming, National Archives Record Group 90, 30 December 1922

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dear Mr. Pruitt, today we talked about DDT

Dear Mr. Pruitt,
I teach an introductory environmental toxicology class to undergraduate public health majors. Each week we talk about different issues from mercury to DDT and nanomaterials. And each week, inevitably, we talk about the EPA. I am a child of the 1960s, the age when it finally dawned on us that for all the benefits of modern industrial chemicals – from plastics to mosquito-free evenings — maybe there was a dark side to welcoming these new products into our homes and releasing billions of tons of new chemicals into our environment. We talk about what happened, or didn’t, before the EPA reined in pesticides, air pollutants, water pollutants. This week’s topic was DDT and the beginning of pesticide regulation.
Life Magazine ad, meant to show safety of DDT
First I need to tell you, I am not someone who eats all organic all the time. I realize that until we have better solutions, some growers will use pesticides to save their crops. And not everyone can grow (or buy,) organic. I know that not all pesticides are problematic, and more often it is over-reliance or over-use that is the problem. But I can also say this with some level of comfort because these pesticides are registered and regulated by our federal agencies, most importantly the EPA. Though, I have add that there is plenty of room for improvement! I’ve seen only a couple of applications for pesticide registration and I think even you would be surprised by the amount of missing information.
As the new administrator, I am sure you know the history of DDT, Silent Springand the emergence of the EPA. But did you know that some of the first pesticide regulations (pre-EPA) focused on “immediate” harm rather than long-term? Then the EPA began to require consideration of other “adverse” effects and environmental effects. Eventually DDT and similar pesticides were banned. Even so, we still live with their legacy. A recent study has linked DDE exposure at a young age (or even possibly in utero) with an increased incidence of breast cancer in women.
While it would be nice to be able to say “of course, we know so much more now, that can’t happen again.” That there won’t be another DDT. My students know that some day in their life-time there will be another DDT. Maybe it won’t be a pesticide. Maybe it won’t accumulate in the environment. But, some new miracle chemical or maybe even gene product will have effects that could — without pressure by agencies like yours – cause the next generation to look back with disbelief, asking how could this happen?
Making new pesticides, safer pesticides is costly with all the hoops and testing that must be done. And we’ve learned so much from past mistakes. I haven’t read much about what your intentions are towards pesticide regulation and enforcement – but the cuts proposed in EPA’s budget and some of your past efforts seem like you might lean towards deregulation. If that is the case do you really honestly believe, that this current generation and their kids, will be better off without federal regulation of pesticides? I would love to believe that industry would regulate itself – but they haven’t a good track record for self-regulation.We can learn from past mistakes, but then we have to apply what we learn. If you have some examples that show otherwise, I would love to share them with my class.
By their very nature, there will always be things we don’t know about new products. The qualities that make them useful is often their novel activity (nanochemicals are a great example of that.) Look, in the beginning, no one knew DDT would hang around for decades. Or that humans would end up with more DDT in their bodies than was permitted in the food they ate. Or that it might cause breast cancer decades later. But had producers been pushed to ask some of these questions – we might be free of these chemicals today, rather than having molecules produced over half a century ago still jiggling around in  our love handles and muffin tops.
Your family as well as mine and this current generation of college kids are all better off today than in the days before the EPA. This is thanks in large part, to your predecessors and all those who now work for you. Let’s move forward together, rather than backwards.
Best, Emily