Experts: Major Issues Facing EPA as it Turns 40

As EPA turns 40, two scientists who have served on research review panels for the agency talk about the challenges facing the agency.

James E. Klaunig is a toxicologist, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health in Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. He served on the scientific advisory board and numerous research review panels for EPA during the past 25 years and served as Indiana’s state toxicologist for 12 years.

Klaunig said EPA initially was created as an enforcement agency, yet its research activities have since grown to become internationally respected, particularly in the last 15 to 20 years.

“From a scientific and regulatory standpoint, one of the major issues facing environmental science and environmental health in the future is how to evaluate and assess the potential risk of chemicals in the environment to humans,” he said. “We can find remnants and examples of chemicals in the air, water and soil at very low levels.”

For example, when Klaunig began working and researching in this field 35 years ago, scientists knew there were “some” toxic chemicals in the drinking water at very low levels. However, with the latest analytical technology, scientists can now find thousands of chemicals in minuscule quantities in water.

“The question is: ‘How do you take that information and apply it to risk for humans, taking into account the very low levels and the potential additive toxic effects of mixtures of these chemicals?’” said Klaunig. “It’s more complicated. We live in a chemical world and we're exposed to chemicals at different doses at different times in our lives.”

In the past, scientists relied on animal-based or epidemiological studies to assess the risk of human exposure. Now, EPA is taking the lead by replacing the use of rodents for testing the toxic effects and instead using newer technologies to better assess human risks of the large number of chemicals.

“We don’t have the resources to continue to assess toxicity and human risk using the classical 20th century bioassay approaches. The U.S. EPA has been instrumental in developing and applying new technologies along with dose relevant mechanisms of action approaches to human risk assessment. This allows us to better define potential detrimental effects of chemicals in the environment to humans,” Klaunig said.

Forty years ago this week, A. James Barnes, IU professor and former dean, was a first-hand witness to history: the creation of the EPA. He was a special assistant to William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, and later his chief of staff.

Barnes, a professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and in the IU Maurer School of Law, said Ruckelshaus set a tone of fair and unbiased enforcement of environmental laws that served the agency well.

“Creating the agency was the right thing to do,” Barnes said. “And I think Bill Ruckelshaus turned out to be the best possible choice to run it.”

EPA marked the 40th anniversary of its creation on Dec. 2. Established pursuant to a government reorganization plan of President Richard Nixon, it consolidated federal standard setting, research, monitoring and enforcement activities related to the environment into a single agency.

Barnes recalled that a series of high-profile environmental catastrophes produced an outpouring of support for government action. Pollution caused the Cuyahoga River to catch on fire. Lake Erie was dying from algae growth. A blow-out at an offshore well coated California beaches with oil. The bald eagle was threatened by DDT. Comics wisecracked about Los Angeles’ dense smog.

With the first Earth Day in April 1970, Barnes said, “You had literally millions of people demonstrating. A lot of individuals thought it was time to do something.”

Barnes had worked on Ruckelshaus' unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate from Indiana in 1968. When Nixon tapped Ruckelshaus, then a Justice Department official, to head the EPA, Barnes joined him for the challenging task of assembling a new agency with employees from the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Health, Education and Welfare.

“Bill used to describe the process as being like trying to perform an appendectomy while running a 100-yard dash,” remembered Barnes. But the agency won early credibility thanks to Ruckelshaus’ tough decisions and management ability, he said. When the United Nations had its first conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972, representatives of other countries looked to the United States for leadership on the issue.

Barnes said there was strong bipartisan support for environmental protection in the agency’s early years. He laments that the environmental issues have become deeply polarized and that agency decisions have become increasingly political.

After practicing law in Washington, D.C., Barnes worked for the Department of Agriculture and then returned to EPA in the 1980s as general counsel and deputy administrator, again under Ruckelshaus. He served as dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs from 1988-2000.

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