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Regulatory Reform in Environmental Health and Protection Programs

America with its free-market system has always prospered because the nation has adopted common sense laws to help protect individuals and communities from environmental stresses and to resolve current and future problems. This has resulted in the implementation of many rules protecting younger people, workers, and citizens in general. Although a given rule may have a financial cost, over time the improvement in health and reduction in injuries to a given population has far exceeded the cost of resolving the problem. A good example is the removal of lead from gasoline and paint, and the reduction in lead poisoning in children. Further, the new rules and regulations have led to innovations and new products which have stimulated the economy.

The manufacturing, processing, use, and disposal of chemicals and materials by industry often affect environmental and occupational health, and result in safety hazards and damage to the environment, which can initiate or exacerbate various health problems from before birth to old age. All body systems are at risk. Potential toxins are not always tested before use and only come to the attention of public health authorities after the harm to people is proven and widespread. Further, air, water, and land become contaminated and a variety of ecosystems may be altered or destroyed. All of these issues need appropriate rules and regulations to protect the public from potential disastrous consequences which are an unwanted side effect of the manufacturing, processing, use, and disposal of chemicals and materials which help make our society better in some respect.

At times, a rule becomes obsolete and therefore should be removed. However, the elimination of rules and regulations for the sake of improving the economy may end up being very costly, as in shale oil extraction, because of the collateral damage done to the health and welfare of people and the destruction of the environment. Another poor approach is the defunding of programs and professionals who enforce the rules and regulations.

Cost-benefit analysis does not always apply in relation to regulations which improve the environment and/or the health and safety of individuals in the community. All costs are easy to express, but benefits may not be realized for many years. Benefits include improved quality of life and good health of the individual over long periods of time. Benefits also include reduction in medical expenses, greater productivity from individuals because of less lost time and higher performance, and the cost of long-term disability and the loss of a human life. The true costs of an industrial operation should include the damage to the environment by certain processes, the cost of clean-up of waste dumped into the air, water, and on the land, collateral damage to other parts of the community such as through acid rain, and societal costs to people, communities, and the physical environment. (See endnote 8.)

A proposed alternative to cost-benefit analysis is the Precautionary Principle, which states, “When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action.” This principle was arrived at during the Wingspread Conference on January 26, 1998, at a special meeting of scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and environmental activists, at the Robert Wood Johnson Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, WI. The Precautionary Principle is necessary because: numerous toxic substances have been released into the environment, resources have been exploited, there are increasing rates of disease due to environmental actions, and environmental interactions of today will influence the environment of tomorrow. The Principle has been used as a basis for international agreements. The participants felt that cost-benefit analysis allowed new products and technologies which could cause disease and injury without considering the potential problems from the raw and finished materials. The Principle, which applies to human health and the environment, utilizes the ethical assumption that humans are responsible for protecting, preserving, and restoring all ecosystems in the world and preventing disease from occurring because of new technologies. (See endnote 9.)

Another technique for regulatory reform is to utilize the Environmental Public Health Performance Standards (v2.0) developed by the CDC in conjunction with the organizations which make up the nation’s leadership in environmental health. The primary goal of these standards is to build capacity for essential services, build community accountability for environmental health services, and build consistency of services throughout the environmental health systems or programs. This goal, when met, will enhance communications, improve coordination of activities and resources, and reduce duplication of services. It will help identify the strengths and weaknesses of various programs. It will establish standards and the means of measuring them. It will provide information and data that can help provide for changes in policy or resources to improve community environmental health and the health and safety of the public and thereby the physical environment. (See endnote 10.)

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