In the News
In what has become a familiar pattern, 2018 was a year of extreme weather-related events throughout the country, from summer heat waves to record-breaking natural disasters. Hurricane Michael, which struck Florida's Panhandle in October, was the most powerful storm to hit the continental United States in 50 years. Wildfires in California made it the most destructive and deadly season in decades, with three of Northern California's cities experiencing the worst air pollution in the world.
Such events, which researchers say are occurring more frequently and intensely because of human-caused changes in the climate, have an immediate and devastating impact on human health and survival. They also cause prolonged air and water pollution and food and housing insecurity in areas far beyond those most affected. As the impact of these weather-related events is felt by more people for longer periods of time, vulnerable populations—such as children, the elderly, and those with mental health conditions and chronic diseases—are particularly at risk.
Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has reversed environmental protections instituted by the prior administration to reduce pollution and climate change impacts. In the past 12 months, the administration has also relaxed the rules surrounding the release of methane from wells, ended the work of a scientific review panel that had provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with guidance on air pollution standards, and defunded a program that measured carbon emissions worldwide. It has also proposed rolling back fuel-economy standards for automobiles and weakening emission regulations for coal-fired power plants. Before resigning as EPA chief in July amid ethics investigations, Scott Pruitt proposed that the EPA only use publicly available research data when making policy decisions—a move supported by industry and opposed by those who believe this would significantly limit the agency's ability to weigh all scientific evidence.
Perhaps the most surprising change was one made with little fanfare: the director of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection, Ruth A. Etzel, MD, PhD, was put on administrative leave in the fall with no warning or explanation. The office she led provides guidance on children's health protections to the agency's leadership and health care providers, among others. This move has caused concern among public health advocates, who've wondered if this is the first step toward closing the office, which is seen as a vital advocate for children's health within the agency.
With a majority of seats in the House of Representatives this year, Democrats have indicated they plan to focus on climate change and review the administration's rollback of environmental protections. This stance was bolstered by the November release of a scientific research report (https://nca2018.globalchange.gov) about climate change that stands in stark contrast to the administration's relaxed regulations on pollution. The report, which by law must be released every four years, indicates that immediate action is needed to address and prepare for what are predicted to be irreversible consequences to health and the nation's economy.—Corinne McSpedon, senior editor