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EPA Places Children’s Health Leader on Unexplained Leave
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the head of the Office of Children's Health Protection on administrative leave Tuesday in a move that those close to the agency suspect is intended to sideline the office's work, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Dr. Ruth Etzel, a pediatrician and epidemiologist who joined the EPA in 2015, was asked to hand in her badge, keys and cellphone Tuesday, but was not being disciplined and would continue to receive pay and benefits, an anonymous official within the EPA told The New York Times.
"This seems like a sneaky way for the EPA to get rid of this program and not be upfront about it," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a top Michigan pediatrician whose blood tests of Flint residents helped confirm lead poisoning from the water there, told The New York Times.
Sources close to the agency said that the children's health office often calls for stricter standards on regulating chemicals and pollutants, since children are more vulnerable to toxins than adults due to their size, the fact that they are still developing and the fact that some of their behaviors, like crawling or sticking objects in their mouths, put them in more potential contact with contaminants.
This has put the office at odds with an administration intent on rolling back environmental regulations.
The anonymous official said that a proposal for reducing children's lead exposure, which had been in development for more than a year with the help of 17 federal agencies, had been stalled since July.
Etzel had also opposed a move by the EPA's current office of chemical regulation leader and former chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck to rescind an Obama-era standard saying farm workers under 18 could not apply the most toxic pesticides.
EPA spokesperson John Konkus declined to give an explanation for the agency's decision to place Etzel on leave, but denied it was an attempt to phase out her office.
"These offices will continue to be a part of headquarters and regional organizations," he said in a statement reported by The New York Times. "Children's health is and has always been a top priority for the Trump Administration and the EPA in particular is focused on reducing lead exposure in schools, providing funds for a cleaner school bus fleet, and cleaning up toxic sites so that children have safe environments to learn and play."
But former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was appointed by George W. Bush, said the move was extremely unusual.
"If they're not saying why they dismissed her, it creates the impression that it's about the policies she worked on," she told The New York Times.
Science advocacy and public health organizations have called on the EPA to explain its actions.
"EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler promised to listen to the EPA's expert public servants. We call on Administrator Wheeler to explain why he's removed Dr. Etzel from her position and, on the eve of Children's Health Month, confirm his commitment to the Office of Children's Health Protection," the Union of Concerned Scientists Executive Director Kathleen Rest said in a statement.
The American Academy of Pediatrics called for her to be reinstated, according to The New York Times.
Etzel has worked in key positions in children's environmental health for 30 years and came to the EPA from serving as a senior officer for environmental health research at the World Health Organization.
This wouldn't be the first time political EPA appointees under President Donald Trump had interfered with the work of career staffers.
The EPA employees union told The New York Times that the administration has chosen to drain various offices of staff rather than closing them altogether. The staff of the Office of Environmental Compliance and Enforcement, for example, has fallen from around 252 employees to around 182.
The Office of Environmental Justice has also decreased in size since Trump took office.
"They're finding these other ways to hamper the work," head of the EPA union at the Chicago office Nicole Cantello told The New York Times.
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By Will Sarni
It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.
The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future
We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.
"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.
One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.
Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.
Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.
These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.
We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).
We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.
We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.
Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.
Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
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