Your child can go to gym class on Monday morning and play football on a field that has been watered over the weekend 2,4-D, a toxic weed killer that was investigated as a possible carcinogen. Alternatively, the school grounds may have been treated with a lower toxicity herbicide. Or maybe the site was managed with safe, non-toxic products and techniques.
Which of these scenarios applies depends in large part on your state’s current laws and regulations, more so than on federal regulations.
For example, Texas requires all school districts to adopt an integrated pest control program for school buildings; IPM prioritizes non-chemical pest control methods and includes some protection measures related to spraying areas. Massachusetts also limits the use of pesticides on school grounds. Illinois requires IPM for school buildings only if economically feasible. States also vary greatly in the education and technical assistance they provide to implement these practices.
While the US Environmental Protection Agency is involved in some of the basic functions of pesticides, shortcomings of the main pesticide law, along with industry influencecannot adequately protect vulnerable groups such as children against these exposures.
EPA registers products for use based on a finding that they do not pose an “unreasonable” risk, but takes economic costs and benefits into account, an approach that can lead to decisions that involve health risks. And required labels are allowed omit ingredients considered trade secrets.
like a environmental health advocate and professor, I teach, write and reflect on the pros and cons of one level of government overseeing environmental health – the impact of the natural and man-made environment on human health. Pesticides on school grounds are just one example of the problem of unequal protection from one state to another.
Congress calmed down, states stepped in
State policy choices have become more important in limiting people’s exposure to pollution and toxins as the federal government has increasingly backed away from key environmental health legislation.
Many of the country’s major environmental and health laws were passed in the 1970s on the momentum of the environmental movement and with bipartisan support rarely seen today.
For example, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 required US EPA to regulate a wide range of air pollutants, in some cases based explicitly on the protection of human health. They were approved 374-1 in the House and 73-0 in the Senate and signed by President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon signed into law creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971.
One analyst has written that groups urging lawmakers for environmental protections later splintered into groups advocating for and against environmental laws, reflecting an emerging debate over the appropriate scope of regulation.
At the same time, after the success of many federal environmental health laws, attention turned to issues that are harder for Washington to resolve. With the state’s environmental programs growing, some suggested the role of the U.S. EPA should shift from compelling to catalyzing – from demanding specific measures to reduce pollution to helping states act by providing more information and aiding in compliance. Still, this view recognized that residents of some states would enjoy stronger environmental health protections than others in this scenario.
As a result of this dynamic and the magnitude of political divisions in the US, even as the federal government sets stricter environmental regulations, they are often reversed by the successor board or challenged in court.
Sometimes states have to make the decisions
In some cases it makes sense to leave decisions to states. A health department in a Western state may focus on protecting vulnerable groups from wildfire smoke given the increase in fires in that part of the country. Some states welcome fracking operations, while others prefer to keep them out.
States can also serve as laboratories for innovation, and the experience of state programs and policies can support federal actions.
But this patchwork of regulations creates inequalities. Do you live in one of the dozen-and-a-half states that follow California exhaust emission standards rather than the less strict federal standards, you are likely to benefit from less air pollution.
The same goes for East Coast residents within the confederation of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which limits greenhouse gas emissions — and other air pollutants in the process. a recent study comparing RGGI states with neighboring non-RGGI states concluded that data “indicates that RGGI has produced substantial health benefits for children,” including a reduction in childhood asthma cases.
Drinking water limits or labeling requirements for PFAS – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – too vary by state. Found in products from non-stick cookware to some personal care products, PFAS have been linked to a range of troubling health effects. Due to their toxicity, wide scope of contamination and longevity in the environment, 18 state attorneys general ask for a federal law.
How to hold legislators accountable
Environmental hygiene often suffers from a cycle of panic and neglect. People worry about a problem like the chemical alar used on apples, until the next number appears. The public can put pressure on state and federal decision makers to think about the impact of the environment on health in several ways:
One person can be dismissed as an outsider, so start a group or join other groups that have similar interests.
Research the problem and best practices and possible solutions, such as program or policy development, education, or enhanced enforcement. Then call, email, and send letters to elected representatives and request a meeting to clearly and concisely explain your concerns and ideas.
Identify a “champion” — someone who can lead a change, such as a school nurse or facilities manager — and get in touch.
Bring the issue into the local news media by writing op-eds and social media posts. Be sure to communicate the benefits of the action you’re advocating for, such as increased school attendance or a financial return on your investment.
Attend public meetings and speak up about the issue during the public comment period. Successes at the local level can serve as an example for state officials.