Indecent Exposure: Reagan Guts the Rules on Cancer Protection
Warning: Four more years of Reagan may be hazardous to your health.
Some 450,000 Americans die of cancer yearly, and the rate is climbing. It is the second leading cause of death in this country. One in four of us will die from a disease that many scientists believe is caused by our environment: what we eat, drink and smoke, as well as the chemicals to which we are exposed. Yet for three years, the Reagan administration has systematically reversed or neutralized many of the safeguards that protected us from carcinogens. Many environmentalists, scientists and members of Congress are convinced that four more years of Reagan will mean an increased chance of cancer for many Americans.
In the interest of freeing big business from the “burdensome” cost of federal regulation, Reagan appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory agencies have failed to enact regulations for some 1,000 new chemicals introduced each year, shredded rules already on the books and censored the flow of information to the public as well. Acceptable risk levels for people exposed to carcinogens have been increased a hundredfold, in some cases. Hazardous-waste sites have been ignored. Even when popular opinion or a court order has forced the agencies to move, their initiatives have often been squelched in David Stockman’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has the authority to evaluate all new regulations for cost effectiveness.
Scientists don’t know much for certain about cancer, but there is a consensus that environmental factors are the chief culprits, and that cancer can take a long time to show up-from ten to forty years, in some cases. No one can say for sure what causes tumors, how they are formed or how best to safeguard the public. Animals are used to test suspected substances, for obvious reasons, and once a chemical is judged to be carcinogenic, it’s assumed there is no “safe” level of exposure to that chemical. The inability of scientists to tell us much about the disease is overshadowed by society’s gaping ignorance about the chemicals we are exposed to every day. Of the 53,500 chemicals in commercial use today, practically nothing is known about eighty percent of them, according to the National Academy of Sciences. (Only minimal information exists for the remaining twenty percent.)
Ideally, a prudent public-health policy takes the best scientific data and puts it in the hands of capable administrators, who enact safeguards to protect the public. The Reagan administration has demonstrated little such prudence. To justify their opposition to environmental safeguards, Reagan’s appointees have subverted science, fiddled with statistics and, if all else failed, bullied their way past outraged critics and public officials. Early on, regulators and lobbyists began meeting in secret to cement the new “partnership” between business and government, their conversations protected by executive privilege. Despite the scandals at EPA that sent twenty top officials packing and resulted in subsequent congressional investigations, Reagan’s war against regulation continues. Only the tactics appear to have changed.
The appointment of William Ruckelshaus as EPA administrator has restored a patina of gentility to an office that had become sullied by mismanagement and conflict of interest under its previous director, Anne Burford. Ruckelshaus, who was the agency’s first chief under Richard Nixon, is considered a well-intentioned, capable administrator, even among environmentalists. But little has changed at EPA during his one-year term. There has been no progress on the acid-rain problem or implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act. And the renewal of federal pesticide regulation and air- and water-pollution standards has been delayed.
Ruckelshaus is not entirely at fault. He and his deputies have initiated changes, but often come up empty-handed. According to one EPA staffer, “They can’t win when they go up against the White House and OMB.” Budgets for research and enforcement have been slashed. EPA’s overall allowance is now equal to what it was ten years ago. The budget for research and development is at one-quarter of its 1972 level.