Environmental Protection Agency
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
In response to a growing environmental movement, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970 by President Richard Nixon through a Congressionally approved reorganization plan that joined together parts of existing federal agencies, including parts of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). The goal was to centralize federal organizational components involved with protecting human and ecological health from environmental threats. The EPA is responsible, either alone or with other agencies, for administering over twenty federal laws, including the Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund Act); the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. It differs from other federal agencies with health regulatory responsibilities by not having a defining legislative act (e.g., the Food and Drug Act for FDA). The administrator of EPA reports directly to the president and is sometimes unofficially accorded Cabinet status. EPA is organized into programmatic offices responsible for administering one or more of the environmental laws. There also are a number of crosscutting organizational components, including an Office of Research and Development responsible for assuring that EPA's activities are guided by sound science.
Under EPA oversight, there has been a substantial reduction in overt pollution. Urban air is visibly cleaner, the nation's rivers and beaches are now more swimmable and fishable; there is much less illegal dumping of hazardous wastes; recycling of household and industrial products is increasing; and it is far less likely that a manufactured chemical will be toxic to humans or to ecosystems. Yet many problems remain and new ones have developed, such as global climate change, the impact of loss of wetlands, the recognition of subtle biological effects of pollutants such as endocrine disruption, and the need for international harmonization of risk assessment and management practices in a global economy.
EPA's activities often have been controversial. Its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, was brought back in 1983 after President Ronald Reagan's initial choice became a political liability and a senior EPA official was jailed for perjury. An area of tension within EPA is its role in public health, including its relations with federal public health agencies that also have roles in environmental protection. This tension is mirrored within the many states that have environmental protection agencies separate from their health departments. The number of USPHS commissioned officers with EPA has dropped precipitously in both absolute and relative amounts. Recent administrators have attempted to move EPA from legalistic command-and-control management strategies toward more of a partnership with stakeholders, including other federal and state agencies.
Particularly challenging for the future EPA is the increasing evidence of the linkage between ecosystem and human health. Relatively low levels of fine acidic particulates are the cause both of barren lakes through acid rain and increased mortality and morbidity in humans; endocrine disruptors affect reproductive endpoints in amphibians and in humans; and alterations in ecosystems caused by global climate changes alter human disease vectors. Another major challenge will be to apply legal definitions related to protection of susceptible populations to new information about more subtle susceptibility factors obtained through the unraveling of the human genome.
BERNARD D. GOLDSTEIN
(SEE ALSO: Acid Rain; Ambient Air Quality [Air Pollution]; Ambient Water Quality; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Climate Change and Human Health; Ecosystems; Endocrine Disruptors; Hazardous Waste; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Toxic Substances Control Act; United States Public Health Service [USPHS])
Environmental Protection Agency. About the EPA. Available at http://www.epa.gov.
Goldstein, B. D. (1988). "EPA as a Public Health Agency." Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 8:328–334.