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Assessing the Long-Term Costs of Ignoring the Environment

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman | December 24, 2013

We need to take a longer-term view of the effects that our actions have on our health and our safety

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As NJ Spotlight's staff takes a holiday break until January, former Gov. Christie Whitman, who served from 1994 to 2001, provides the first in our collection of year-end essays from those who have sat in the governor's chair. The invitation asked only that they write about any issue they think is important as New Jersey enters 2014.

As former U.S. EPA administrator and now a consultant on environmental issues, Whitman takes on a topic she knows well: the environment and our public health.

Recent studies linking various health and economic impacts of environmental contamination should cause policymakers to reevaluate their priorities when it comes to environmental legislation and regulation. Three key areas of research in this area stand out: the connection between certain pesticides and Parkinson’s, the correlation between elevated lead in gasoline with crime rates, and the link between air pollution and autism.

A study released last year by researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Parkinson's Institute and Clinical Center showed the connection between Parkinson’s disease and the use of two pesticides, rotenone and paraquat. People who had used either pesticide developed Parkinson’s disease approximately 2.5 times more often than those who did not use the chemicals. Mercifully, there are no residential uses for either paraquat or rotenone currently registered, but that restriction for rotenone was only put in place, voluntarily by its producers, in 2006. Paraquat use is restricted to certified applicators, and rotenone is now only permitted in the killing of invasive fish species.

A study released early this year revealed that the change in leaded gasoline usage has a high correlation with violent crime rates in America. Tulane University toxicologist Howard W. Mielke found that the exposure of children to high levels of lead in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a significant uptick in crime 20 years later. Every 1 percent increase in the number of tons of lead released into the atmosphere corresponded with a half a percent point increase in the aggravated assault rate 22 years later. Mielke found that once leaded gasoline was no longer available in the 1980s, the corresponding crime rates fell; further research confirmed this correlation in other countries and in six U.S. cities.

While there have been previous studies linking lead with birth defects, lower intellectual aptitude and hearing concerns, this latest study is groundbreaking in its connection between lead and high levels of aggression. Leaded gasoline use declined by the 1980s and was banned for use in vehicles in 1996; it is still in use in a few products, including racecars, certain piston-powered airplanes, and some off-road vehicles. There are still traces of lead in the soil in the U.S., and an estimated 16 million homes still have lead in paint or other areas.

Finally, this summer researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that pregnant women who were exposed to high levels of diesel particulates or mercury were twice as likely to have an autistic child when compared with women who were in areas of low pollution. Using data from the Nurse’s Health Study 2, a long-term study that began in 1980 and involves more than 116,000 nurses, the researchers examined 325 women who had a child with autism and 22,000 women who had a child that does not suffer from this disorder. They then used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to approximate the women’s exposure to toxins.

Pundits and politicians tend to present economic development and environmental regulation as opponents in a zero-sum game. Such a view is shortsighted and foolish; we need to take a longer-term view of the affects that our actions toward our surroundings have on our health and our safety –- two resources that once lost cannot simply be repurchased.

Thankfully, we now have research and measurement tools we did not have at our disposal decades ago, and it behooves us to utilize those tools to view environmental protection through the lens of our future and our children’s future. In our benevolent mission to grow the economy, we should not be in too great a rush to ignore environmental testing and results. The price we pay at the end is much greater than we can afford, both in terms of dollars and human lives.

The author was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001-2003 and governor of New Jersey from 1994-2001.

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