According to a top scientist at the EPA, who was recently put on leave for “serious allegations” about her leadership of the Office of Children’s Health, the federal government desire to prevent lead from harming children’s health has stalled. (She has stated that her feelings and comments are being made as a pediatrician with 35 years of experience, not an EPA employee.)
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Ruth Etzel said the U.S. effort to stop children from being exposed to lead proposed after the Flint water crisis was “stonewalled” under the current administration. Something the EPA dismissed (see their statement below).
“At issue is how quickly the federal government is moving to address the disastrous health effects of lead on children. The CDC says there is no safe level of exposure to lead, which can cause developmental problems and learning disabilities in children.
The dangers of lead came into urgent national focus after lead in water pipes in Flint, Michigan, led to a massive public health crisis. The city’s tap water became contaminated in 2014 after officials switched from the Detroit system to the Flint River to save money, exposing residents to lead. This July, the EPA’s inspector general called on the federal agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water systems nationally and respond more quickly to public health emergencies such as the Flint crisis.
The federal government has been working to coordinate a response that would prevent more children from being exposed to lead.”1
Etzel says she wasn’t allowed to brief then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler “since the task force recommended actions that multiple agencies could take to limit children’s exposure to lead, including measures to reduce lead in food and limit airborne exposure from jet fuel that contains lead.”2 (Measures that were supposed to be acted on by this summer.)
But the EPA pushed back saying:
“Dr. Etzel is currently on investigative leave because of serious reports made against her by staff regarding her ability to effectively lead the Office of Children’s Health. The kinds of allegations that have been raised regarding Dr. Etzel’s conduct are very concerning and prompted EPA to take action.
Her attempt to use the press to distract from the allegations about her personal conduct is completely inappropriate. Any link that Dr. Etzel is attempting to draw between her personal situation and the mission of the Office of Children’s Health is an attempt at misdirection. The EPA is 100 percent committed to protecting children’s health and will do everything in its power to ensure that the Office has competent leadership.”3
Etzel responded to the EPA’s allegations saying:
“For the past 5 months, the EPA leadership appeared to be desperate to find something that I had done wrong. They tormented my travel coordinator and quizzed the person who handles our grants. Apparently, they could not find anything so EPA put me on paid leave for no reason. Now, EPA is slandering me in the press, because I am telling the public the truth.”4
The American Academy of Pediatrics and more than 120 environmental and health organizations wrote to acting Administrator Wheeler to ask for an explanation as to why Etzel was placed on leave and asked for a commitment that the agency will still make children’s health issues a priority.
Olga Naidenko, science adviser for the Environmental Working Group and a serving member of an EPA advisory committee on children’s health issues said:
“The current EPA leadership talks about children’s health, and it is literally that — just talk. When it comes to action — such as protecting children from exposure to lead, mercury and harmful pesticides — what we see is administration activities aimed to roll back children’s health protections, not strengthen them.”5
In recent months, the EPA has reiterated its commitment to children’s health. But, as the statement above makes clear, the public needs to see action on their part.