EPA seeks policy shift, announces sustainability reform effort.

By Marla Cone

Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
Dec. 1, 2010

Aiming to reform its policies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enlisted one of the biggest guns in the federal arsenal to help: The National Academy of Sciences.

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone launched an effort to develop the so-called Green Book, a project to ensure all EPA policies are driven by sustainability.

The effort is reminiscent of the 1983 Red Book, written by the National Research Council to develop a strategy of risk assessment to guide the agency’s policies. That project triggered a dramatic shift in how the EPA developed regulations, focusing for the first time on scientifically evaluating risks to human health and the environment.

The National Research Council project was commissioned by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and announced as part of EPA’s 40th-anniversary celebration.

Paul Anastas, EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development, said a new strategy focusing on sustainability is a necessary but challenging step in the “evolution” of the nation’s environmental laws and programs.

“This is no small shift,” he said. “This is a seismic shift in how we pursue our mission…We are under no illusion that it will happen by next Tuesday.”

EPA’s current policies and regulations are driven by statutes that oversee individual issues, such as pesticides, air pollution and drinking water contaminants. But the project by the National Research Council will develop a framework for the EPA to link all environmental issues and ensure its policies rely on sustainable use of energy, water, land and other resources.

For the initiative to succeed, it will have to incorporate a lot of diverse, often contradictory factors, such as environmental justice, economic growth, chemical exposures and energy savings.

In announcing the effort, Jackson said she wants the framework to “apply across all of the agency’s programs, policies and actions.”

Instead of just focusing on risks, if there were a new “sustainability” approach, EPA would have to incorporate a range of sustainable approaches in its solutions to problems. For example, EPA officials said a new global indoor stove initiative deals not only with air pollutants, but also climate change, deforestation and women’s health issues.

The idea is to think systemically, Anastas said. “We act in a fragmented way,” he said.

Anastas said an example of the consequences of fragmentation is that drinking water must be disinfected, but disinfection leads to byproducts in the water supply that pose health risks and must then be regulated. Similarly, growers want to increase crop yields to grow the food supply but this goal leads to overuse of farm chemicals.

The National Research Council panel will be chaired by Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a  professor of environmental and occupational health at University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.