Update 7/18/13: After months of delay, Gina McCarthy was confirmed as the new head of EPA today. See this media statement for more details.
We hear the Senate will take up the confirmation of EPA's new leader next week. As we wait on the final vote, I've been thinking about what I'd say to Administrator-to-be Gina McCarthy if I had a chance to take her out for coffee and a chat as she gets ready to step into her new role.
Three things come to mind. First, I'd urge her to have the agency do a much, much better job following the science. Second, when that science points to human health or environmental harms, she needs to move fast — no dawdling allowed. And third, I'd remind her just exactly who she'll be working for. Because even though they don’t show up in suits on EPA’s doorstep every day (like the industry reps do), it's the nation's children she'll answer to in the end.
Follow the science, please
After settling in with our coffee, I'd bring up the agency's lackluster commitment to scientific integrity. Back in 2011, critics told the New York Times that EPA's scientific integrity policy was the weakest on the block. For an institution charged with protecting our health and environment from harm, this is not reassuring.
Decisions based on solid, independent science will lead to better policies, plain and simple. It will also give Gina the bedrock grounding she'll need to justify her decisions on the Hill, since EPA will undoubtedly continue to be a favorite political punching bag.
Slow as molasses in winter
Next up: the sad fact is, the agency simply takes too long to act, even when the evidence is strong. Time after time, a pesticide is flagged as problematic but remains on the market for years as the "registrant" (company making money from the product sales) submits more studies. EPA then reviews the studies and can request even more. In the case of the neurotoxic pesticide lindane, this process took — count 'em — 29 years.
The insecticide chlorpyrifos provides another example. This organophosphate was pulled from use in homes back in 2002 because of its known dangers to children's developing brains and nervous systems. More than 10 years later, 8-10 million pounds continue to be applied in agricultural fields every year, and evidence of continued harm to kids keeps rolling in. Yet EPA's review continues.
This is absurd.
A better idea would be to take pesticides out of circulation when independent science shows they are likely to be harmful — especially to children. Then it's back in the companies' court to make the scientific case that their product is, in fact, safe.
If proven safe, their product could go back on the market and the process would surely move much more quickly since they'll be motivated to push it through. If not safe, generations have been protected from harm.
And about that chemical soup
Finally, I'd encourage Gina to use her new leadership to address the fact that U.S. children — an entire generation — are feeling the harmful effects of the chemical soup we've created for them. From pesticides in their water, air and food to toxicants in the products that surround them, children take in a dizzying array of hard-to-pronounce chemicals that their small bodies are ill-equipped to withstand.
Our recent report on trends in children's health shows so many diseases and disorders on the rise that this generation is likely to be the first that is, overall, less healthy than their parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees this is a serious problem, and that reducing kids' exposure to harmful pesticides is a very good idea.
Gina McCarthy can do something about this when she takes the reins at EPA. She can — and should — stay committed to former Administrator Lisa Jackson's strategic focus on protecting and promoting children's health. In my recent visit to DC I had a chance to chat with the good folks in EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection. They are doing good work that should be supported and built upon. But how about putting a kids' health expert in each EPA office — air, water, pesticides, etc. — to be sure every decision is putting the health of kids at the top of the priority list?
We hear Gina has a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense straight-shooter with charm. Let's hope she puts these talents to work on behalf of our kids.
Originally posted May 2, 2013.