by Casey Halter
“Environmentalism is out of control,” said the current President of the United States, while speaking at a special press conference with auto industry CEO's during his first week in office. Since then, the the new administration has made a series of sweeping efforts to cut back, ignore or reverse policies put in place to help protect the country against an epidemic of rising temperatures, natural disasters, and industrial pollution.
From opening up the country to coal manufacturers, to dismantling the EPA, it's clear that the current administration has chosen the health of American industry over the well-being of the planet. But Trump's efforts to destroy a bunch of planet-protecting initiatives aren't just going to be harmful to the land we live on – they're also going to have a detrimental effect on human health in the United States.
This interactive overviews nine major environmental policy changes the 2017 administration has put forth so far, and what they mean for both the health of our nation's homeland, plus the people who live here.
Mouse over the anatomical model for each policy change to view which parts of the body could be under attack.
1. FAST-TRACKING THE KEYSTONE PIPELINE/DAPL
Here's what happened: During his first week in office, our new "Commander-in-Chief" told the U.S. Army Corps to hurry it up with their required environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to “rescind or modify” its landmark decision to consider alternate routes for the project that would not ~you know~ endanger local water supplies or destroy Native American sacred sites. The order also invited TransCanada to renew its application for the Keystone XL pipeline, which may one day pump 83,000 barrels of oil per day through the heart of America's homeland.
Here's the problem: Pipelines spill. Pretty frequently. Some examples: In 2010, 125,000 liters of crude oil were pumped into Salt Lake City after a tree clean-up crew punctured a quarter-size hole into Chevron's nearby pipeline. That same year, a pipeline operated by Enbridge randomly burst in Michigan and pumped more than a three million liters of diluted bitumin ~we can call it Dilbit, for short~ into a subsidiary of the Kalamazoo River. In 2013, Exxon Mobil's Pegasus Pipeline coated the town of Mayflower, Arkansas in more than 3,000 barrels of heavy oil. The cause of that spill still has yet to be discovered.
Here are the health effects: According to past medical studies, people exposed to the gas fumes/nasty waters of the above pipeline disasters reported migraines, drowsiness, painful rashes, breathing complications, nausea and gastrointestinal distress in the months following the spill. Living near a pipeline (whether it bursts or not) has also been associated with an increased risk of childhood leukemia and neurological problems at any age. While the long-term health effects of pipeline spills are still largely unknown, recent studies have suggested an increased cancer risk, significantly lower IQs, and an increase in behavioral problems among children born to pregnant women exposed to the aftermath of a spill.
2. GUTTING THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
Here's what happened: On January 23, 2017, the new administration put its anti-EPA plans in motion by freezing all current grants and contracts at the agency. Soon after, the White House announced plans to slash the EPA's budget by an astounding 31 percent. Since then, EPA regulators say they have been instructed to rewrite key rules curbing U.S. carbon emissions and other environmental regulations, and to rewrite all of the agency's web content related to climate change. On May 5, several of the EPA's Board of Scientifi c Counselors were dismissed by Ambassador Scott Pruitt. A week later, two more top EPA advisors quit the board, and were quoted saying: “We cannot be complicit.”
Here's the problem: To give a small sample of this action's potential effects on current U.S. environment-protecting efforts: $100 million in funding formerly allocated to research on climate change, evaporated. $247 million in funding for U.S. pollution clean-up efforts, liquidated. $330 million toward contamination site cleanups, disposed. NOAA's Sea Grant mission, NASA's Earth Science Program, the Federal Radon Action Plan? The majority of the nation's get-rid-of-mercury-in-the-air programs? ~get ready to say goodbye~
Here are the health effects: For one thing, more radon in the air would likely mean more lung cancer. Cutting government programs on endocrine disruptors could lead to an increase in reproductive and hormonal health issues across the population. Higher air pollution thresholds have been linked to higher autism rates in children, and earlier onsets of diseases like dementia, Alzheimer's and other forms of cognitive decline. And let's not even get started on the health effects of caused by dirtier oceans, lakes and other food/water-providing reservoirs. We're talking increased cancer risk, significantly lower IQs, behavioral problems in children born to pregnant women exposed to the potential aftermath.
3. TOSSING OUT THE CLEAN POWER PLAN
Here's what happened: Remember this from the campaign trail? The current President appears to have made good on his threats, and in late March, officially ordered a review of the Clean Power Plan (an Obama-era initiative that aims to cut emissions from U.S. power plants to 32 percent below 2005 levels). A related attack on the EPA's endangerment filing — an official government report that basically says “Carbon dioxide poses a threat to human health” — as well as recent top-level discussions over whether or not the U.S. should stay in the UN's Paris Agreement aren't boding well for the U.S. climate change response.
Here's the problem: Before Scott Pruitt came along, the EPA predicted that the Clean Power Plan would reap more than $55 billion in public health benefits per year by 2030. The initiative would have also prevented hundreds of thousands of metric tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from being pumped into the Earth's atmosphere, and ~as an added bonus~ was poised to create hundreds of thousands of health insurance-providing jobs, by helping to boost renewable energy production in the United States by 30 percent over the next two decades.
Here are the health effects: Back in 2014, the EPA issued a report estimating that The Clean Power Plan would have averted 90,000 asthma attacks in children and prevented nearly 1,700 heart attacks in adults every year if allowed to pass. The report also notes that longer heat waves (which government climate data show are already definitely happening) have contributed to a major increase in heat-related deaths across the country over the last few years. Also, get ready for more intense allergy seasons and O.P. storms that are likely to cost the U.S. healthcare industry billions in injury-related costs. Oh, and the constituents. They'll get hurt too.
4. EXPANDING OFFSHORE DRILLING
Here's what happened: April 10, 2017: a new executive order demanded a review of Obama-era bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in large swaths of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The order also halted the designation or expansion of so-called National Marine Sanctuaries unless the site is pre-investigated by the Interior Department for “energy or mineral resource potential” first. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it will likely take around two years to do a thorough review of what new areas will be “up for auction.” In the meantime, the U.S. oil industry seems happy.
Here's the problem: Let's talk about some past drilling catastrophes, like 2010's Deepwater Horizon spill (the single largest marine oil disaster in U.S. history) or 1989's Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped more than 40 million liters of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Normally-functioning offshore drilling operations also dump tons of drilling fluid, metal cuttings (including toxic metals, such as chromium and mercury) as well as known carcinogens, such as benzene, into the ocean. Increased drilling would also likely be detrimental to communities on the front lines of global climate change, contributing to water, soil and air contamination, plus irreversible damage to the marine life they depend on.
Here are the health effects: Workers exposed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its dispersants have reported the following issues: narcosis, central nervous system depression, respiratory arrest, unconsciousness and sudden death; Bleeding from the ears and breasts, vomiting blood, chemical pneumonia; chronic headaches, fevers, muscle/joint pains. Reported long-term effects included kidney toxicity and continuing chemical sensitivity, an increased risk of early-term miscarriages, and early developmental issues in children. Plus, let's not forget the food insecurity, homelessness and disease that coastal communities often face in the aftermath of these man-made natural disasters.
5. KILLING FEDERAL FRACKING REGULATIONS
Here's what happened:On March 15, 2017, the U.S. Interior Department filed official court documents stating its plans to withdraw and rewrite a 2015 rule aimed at limiting hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) on public federal lands in the United States. If successful, the move to revoke fracking rules would stop requiring companies that drill for natural gas on American soil to disclose the chemicals they're using to split open the ground in search of natural gas. The decision would also set lower standards for wells and waste fluid storage facilities, which help mitigate the documented risks to air, water and wildlife many fracking operations pose.
Here's the problem: Environmental experts warn chemical additives used in the slurries and fluids used in the fracking process could pose serious risks to ground and drinking water reserves if left unchecked. Fracking operations also pump a significant amount of methane into the atmosphere (an estimated 2.4 million metric tons in 2014 alone), as well as toxic gases such as benzene, toluene, xylene, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and nitrogen oxides. And don't forget: Fracking has been linked to an alarming increase in seismic activity in states like Oklahoma and Kansas, where man-made earthquakes continue to pose serious threats to the American landscape, infrastructure and human health.
Here are the health effects: Airborne pollutants associated with fracking have been associated with an increased risk of cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders, birth defects and the rapidly increasing appearance of a condition called ~silicosis~, an incurable lung disease that develops when humans inhale crystalline sand. Groundwater samples taken near fracking sites have turned up elevated levels of BTEX compounds (which also cause cancer) and heavy metals, which have serious negative effects on the central nervous system. The National Institutes of Health are currently tracking patterns of pregnancy risks, asthma, stress and inflammation, cardiovascular disease and quality of life outcomes in communities nearby hydraulic fracturing sites. Oh, and speaking of communities, fracking operations have also been associated with increases in crime and substance abuse rates, largely due to the industry's demand for low-pay, transient workers.
6. REJECTING THE EPA'S PROPOSED BAN ON CHLORPYRIFOS
Here's what happened: On March 27, 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed an order denying his own agency's proposal to ban chlorpyrifos (pronounced klor-PYE-ruh-fahs), a type of organophosphate pesticide that kills bugs by “interrupting the electrochemical processes that nerves use to communicate with muscles and other nerves.” After a series of troubling health studies came out about chlorpyrifos in 2015, EPA scientists concluded these chemicals should be banned altogether. Also, FYI: chlorpyrifos are routinely sprayed on staple crops such as apples, oranges, strawberries, broccoli and almonds across the United States, so it's incredibly difficult to avoid exposure.
Here's the problem: In 2015, that same EPA recommendation concluded that infants and children in some parts of the country were already being exposed to unsafe amounts of the pesticide in their drinking water. But in this case, the health effects related to chlorpyrifos really speak for themselves.
Here are the health effects: According to numerous peer-reviewed studies, chlorpyrifos can cause serious brain damage and may interfere with a wide array of the body’s neurological processes. Long-term exposure to the pesticide has been linked with lower IQ scores, higher rates of hyperactivity, as well as cognitive, motor and attention problems in children (which is why they have been banned from domestic use since 2001). For those unlucky enough to have direct contact with chlorpyrifos, dizziness, vomiting, headache, nausea and diarrhea are known to present themselves. Add in muscle tremors, blurred vision, loss of bladder control and convulsions to the mix of short-term effects. But, on the bright side, this is one of the few policy changes in this article that doesn't cause cancer?
7. REVOKING THE STREAM PROTECTION RULE (RIP “CLEAN COAL”)
Here's what happened: On February 2, 2017, Republicans in the Senate voted to reverse the Stream Protection Rule, which restricts coal companies in the U.S. from dumping mining waste into nearby streams and waterways. The rule also requires coal companies to restore any mined areas back to their original physical and ecological state, and to monitor their environmental effects wherever mining occurs (which would have essentially put mountaintop coal removal out of business). These protections, which have been around in some form since 1983 (and were recently strengthened by the Obama administration) would have protected 9,600 kilometers of streams and 210 square kilometers of forests from dangerous pollution if left in place. On February 16, the current President officially repealed the law.
Here's the problem: Mountaintop coal removal (which has already decapitated more than 500 mountains in Appalachia and buried some 3,200 kilometers of streams) is somewhat notorious for filling waterways with toxic heavy metals and pollutants, including arsenic, lead, manganese, iron, sodium, strontium and sulfate. Residents nearby these sites have reported lakes turning grey and streams turning bright orange. Plus, now that the Stream Protection Rule is gone, Republicans in the Senate are also likely to go after a moratorium now in place on coal mining operations on federally-owned lands. The measure would prevent the Department of the Interior from issuing similar regulations in the future, and would hamstring federal efforts to rein in coal mining-related pollution.
Here are the health effects: Drinking contaminated water from coal mining operations has created a new acute illness local health officials call slurry syndrome: a brutal mixture of unremitting diarrhea, rash, tooth loss and kidney stones. Accidentally ingesting mining waste has also been linked with an increased risk of respiratory, breast and urinary cancers, as well as higher rates of cardiovascular disease in nearby communities. Counties in coal-producing regions currently rank among the lowest 1 percent in the nation for life expectancy and also rank ~the highest~ in preventable hospitalizations.
8. ATTEMPTING TO UNDO TAILPIPE EMISSIONS STANDARDS
Here's what happened: In March 2017, the current President signed a sweeping executive order aiming to undo new vehicle emissions standards set by his predecessor. The rules would have required the U.S. automotive industry to begin producing cars that get more than 50 mpg (preventing 163 grams/mile of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere via new American-made cars) by 2025. Relaxing these tailpipe rules would obliterate one of the Obama administration's central efforts to combat CO2 emissions and global climate change — which would have represented a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gases and a 40 percent reduction in average fuel consumption when compared with today's vehicles.
Here's the problem: Transportation currently accounts for an estimated 37 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States. Automobiles are also the largest net contributor to climate change pollution on the planet right now. To put that in further perspective, every 4 liters of gasoline burned by American cars over the next decade will release an estimated 9 kilograms of greenhouse gases into the Earth's atmosphere. If the new administration's order is successful, the country won't make any significant headway in reducing that number. What's more, aside from a warmer planet, vehicle emissions also contribute to significant smog pollution in urban and high-traffic areas across the country.
Here are the health effects: Numerous studies over the last decade on vehicle emissions have shown that not only are more people getting asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory illnesses from living in smog-heavy areas, but that their symptoms are made worse by breathing in the fumes from low-efficiency vehicles. The EPA also estimates that vehicle emissions currently account for as many as half of all cancers attributed to outdoor air pollution. And then there’s the health effects of climate change: In addition to what's already been noted, environmental health studies suggest that if the U.S. continues getting hotter, we're in for an influx of vector-borne illnesses such as the Zika virus, Lyme disease, Chikungunya and West Nile virus (which epidemiologists report are already on the rise in various regions throughout the country).
9. ATTACKING THE CLEAN WATER RULE
Here's what happened: On February 28, 2017, the President issued an order directing the EPA to set about dismantling the Waters of the United States rule, a far-reaching anti-pollution effort that expanded the authority of regulators over the nation's waterways and wetlands. The so-called "Clean Water Rule" helps protect public drinking water supplies across the country, but has been fought heavily for years by farmers, ranchers, real estate developers and others for years, who complain it burdens their businesses. This directive came out just around the same time the new administration also decided to peel back the Clean Power Plan.
Here's the problem: EPA research shows one in three Americans currently get their drinking water from a public drinking water supply that's protected by the Clean Water Rule. The current regulations protects these water supplies from sewage, radioactive materials, agricultural waste and other pollutants (including lead) from pouring through people's taps. Plus, a study released this May by the National Resources Defense Council shows there are already more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by community water systems across the country, including 12,000 health-based violations alone, ~but apparently we need less regulation~.
Here are the health effects: Past failures to enforce groundwater/filter backwash rules in the United States have exposed a number of U.S. communities to nasty bacteria such as Cyrptosporidium and Giardia (a.k.a. beaver fever), which both cause severe gastrointestinal distress. And let's not even get started with the health effects of ingesting lead and other heavy metals. Health studies on places like Flint, Michigan have reported irreversible brain and nervous system damage, stillbirths, fertility issues, kidney disease, cognitive dysfunction and high blood pressure in people exposed to contaminated water from the crisis. Overshooting nitrite and nitrate levels in local water supplies elsewhere has also been linked to developmental delays in children, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adults.
Will ignoring the issues really help us forget the environmental and public health crises we’ve created? Or will we have to start feeling symptoms before we start treating the disease?
The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment (U.S. Global Change Research Program)
Biopolitics of Climate Change: Carbon Commodities, Environmental Profanations, and the Lost Innocence of Use-Value (University of Western Ontario)
Casey Halter is a New York-based journalist and the current editor-and-chief of Silica Mag. Her writing focuses on the intersections of health, the environment and human rights. Find her work at POZ magazine, VICE, The Creator's Project, Hep magazine and more.
- climate change