How Important is the EPA? From an Actual Living Scientist.
FemSTEM does not have a political affiliation.
This was published originally in 2017
The political climate has taken science down deep with it. Though some people do not think the two should be mixed, people could argue that it absolutely has to be mixed. With the EPA, the governmental agency that was installed in the 1970s, being at risk of a budget cut, or to even be dismantled completely, people are more and more concerned.
President Donald Trump has shown himself not exactly be a huge fan of the sciences. Though he has talked about refocusing the EPA to improve air quality, he has also come out on more than one occasion as a climate change denier (without actually labeling himself as such), which worries many. Scott Pruitt, the current head of the EPA, has also done the same. With all this in mind, I wanted to pick the mind of someone who may have more of an inside clue into how important the EPA is in this day and age.
Recently, I got in contact with Samantha Stuhler. She is a young scientist who works with asbestos every day, and knows a thing or two about harmful fibers that could potentially risk human lives. I asked her about her job, and how she thinks the EPA affects human lives now, and what she thinks would happen if the budget cut goes through, or if congress does terminate the agency altogether.
Q: “Hi, Sam. Thank you so much for taking time our of your day and answering these questions for me! Having an opinion come from someone who works in this field will be truly insightful.”
A: “No Problem!”
Q: “Would you be willing to explain what your position is, and what it is you do every day?”
A: “Sure. I work for an environmental testing company as an analyst. My position involves the preparation and analysis of air and bulk samples for asbestos fiber content using various types of analytical methods and microscopes.”
Q: “Wow! That sounds a bit complicated and pretty fascinating. How long have you been in this field?”
A: “I’ve been working for this company since 2010, so almost seven years!
“I started off as solely doing prep work, but I was able to learn first PCM (phase contrast microscopy) analysis, which tests for fiber content in air, and then the more complicated TEM (transmission electron microscopy) analysis which uses a significantly larger microscope that allows for precise identification of individual fibers.”
Q: “Very nice! It sounds like you’ve had good, steady growth in this field, and you’ve learned a lot from it! With the fact that you work to protect customers from harmful asbestos fibers, I was wondering how you felt about the prospect of the EPA being in potential danger of shut down for the government. Congress recently introduced a bill that could shut down the EPA altogether. If the bill to shut down the EPA were to go through, would your job be directly effected?”
A: “Well… yes, and no. Obviously we haven’t experienced this before, so I can only speculate.
“I say no, because there will always be buildings with asbestos in them. I live and work in New York City, and there are countless buildings here that were built before asbestos use was widely discontinued. When those buildings are being renovated and tested for asbestos, if the contractor is one of our clients, we may get their samples from their abatement procedures.
“(By the term “samples", I’m referring to anything from air cassettes for PCM/TEM analysis to pieces of building materials like floor tiles or plaster that are tested in the bulk lab. The laboratory that I work for is very diverse and also runs tests on mold samples, lead samples, various foods, and even does some forensic testing, but in general, we refer to each different item we receive as a “sample”.)
“I say yes, because without the EPA’s regulations on asbestos, I don’t know if my job would be there still. I would like to hope that it would, due to the fact that most people are aware of the <a href="http://www.dictionary.com/browse/carcinogenic">carcinogenic</a> effects of asbestos and finding out if it is present in buildings is important to do, but I don’t want to speculate.
“Another side of this coin is that potentially the use of asbestos could actually increase, which is something that I shudder to think about. The fact that the US actually hasn’t discontinued the use of asbestos completely despite knowing about all of the harmful effects is something that still blows my mind to think about, though the primary use of it is in products like brake pads and cement pipe, which I presume provide a low risk of inhalation of fibers.”
Q: “It is kind of scary to think about. FemSTEM will be sure to cover the harmful effects that asbestos can have in another article to better explain what you mean to anyone who may not be aware. In my community, actually, there was recently some commotion over asbestos making people in a subdivision very, very sick. It was scary. Now, on a personal note, I’d like to ask how do you feel about the EPA?”
A: “I appreciate the work that they do, and am very thankful for the regulations that they have in place. It’s nice to know that there’s a part of our government that’s dedicated to protecting our environment and coming up with ways to improve on the current conditions of our world.”
Q: “When I spoke to you about doing this interview initially, you mentioned how schools rely on you the most. How could schools and the children in school suffer if there aren’t safety measures being enforced?"
A: “There’s currently a special type of analysis that we do that was specifically created for use in schools. It’s called TEM AHERA (which stands for Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) and involves a very specific method of fiber counting. The protocols that contractors have to go through in order to clear a school for students to be able to enter is extremely rigorous in order to be sure that there are no fibers in the air when students, teachers, and employees enter the building again.
“This is one of our primary jobs; a very significant portion of our samples are from schools in the city and surrounding areas. Whenever schools are out on break, whether it’s for a week or for summer, our sample count in-house increases substantially.
“As I mentioned before, older buildings still contain asbestos, and so a school built before the frequent use of asbestos was banned could still contain asbestos.
“If these rules aren’t enforced and this sort of careful and thorough testing isn’t implemented, then young kids (as well as parents, teachers, school employees, etc) could be exposed to asbestos, which like I said before, is a known carcinogen.”
Q: “Without the EPA and agencies like it, we are really putting children in danger. Putting adults in danger is bad enough, but considering that schools rely on you the most and even have their own, specific method of fiber counting makes you realize just how important it is to have these regulations.
“Let’s refocus a little and assume that the bill to discontinue the EPA does not pass the House and Senate.
“Let’s talk about Pruitt’s involvement. I don’t want to get too political as FemSTEM does not have a political affiliation, but I am interested in your opinion as a scientist yourself.
Your job does not directly relate to climate change, but as I’m sure you’re aware, Pruitt and Trump have promised to refocus the EPA 'on protecting air and water quality, while scrapping many of Obama's initiatives to curb carbon dioxide emissions'. Can I ask what your personal thoughts on this are?”
A: “I personally don’t see how cutting plans to curb CO2 emissions will help with making air quality any better. I’ll try not to get too political here (which is a bit hard for me in this political climate) but I don’t have much faith in this current administration’s ability to successfully do much of anything, especially in relation to the EPA.”
Q: "Pruitt was quoted as saying: 'Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum. We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth'. Do you believe this to be true? Can we have mutual goals regarding the environment, people’s health, and economics?”
A: “I don’t agree with anything that Pruitt has done so far, and it’ll take a lot for him to change my mind, especially after him saying that he doesn’t believe that CO2 has any effect on climate change. This probably relates more to your prior question, but I figured I should say it nonetheless.
“I think that in a perfect world, we can have mutual goals, but right now our country is too divided to easily find that mutuality. With some work though, I think it can be done.”
Q: “I want to thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions for me. I truly appreciate it, and I know our readers will as well. Getting your opinion was great, and I’m sure this will cause a lot of discussion. Thank you!”
A: “Not a problem! Thank you!”
There is no real way of knowing how much of an effect dismantling the EPA will really have until it happens — if it happens. Both Trump’s budget proposal and the bill still need to go through the House and Senate and be approved by them before anything takes really affect. Until then, we can only make estimations -- guesses -- until we see how things will continue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM. Find her on Twitter.