Gina McCarthy and the Future of the EPA – What it Means for Global Health

Environmental policy can have a tremendous impact on public health. While the debate rages regarding to what extent, most agree that the environment and public health are inextricably linked. One study discussing the Clean Air Act in the United States found that, in 2010 alone, the act was responsible for avoiding more than 160,000 premature deaths due to heart attack, respiratory problems, and diseases exacerbated or caused by air pollution.  That same study found that the CAA has produced at least $30 in benefits for every dollar spent, almost entirely on avoided health costs.

In the global context, international negotiations on environmental policy and specifically efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions are of great interest to global health practitioners and advocates. As a global leader, U.S. environmental policy can help foreshadow possible future efforts to negotiate international agreements and global health advocates should take notice.

One person to watch is the new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. McCarthy, officially confirmed as EPA Administrator a little over a month ago, is an environmental health and air quality expert, who has spent her career working on environmental and public health issues. The EPA is responsible for a number of critical health initiatives over the past 40 years, such as the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Act which cleaned up hazardous waste sites, and more.  Particularly as we investigate the US’s role as a major player in international environmental policy, the EPA’s influence on American environmental health is critical to global goal-setting (consider the future of the MDGs, for example.)

What could Gina McCarthy mean for global health?

Global Air Quality: If the Obama Administration’s proposed rules regulating carbon dioxide go through under McCarthy, coal plants across the country could be required to dramatically change their modes of operation to pollute less.  Americans living nearby coal plants would see a decrease in harmful air toxins as a result of plants cleaning up or shutting down.  Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health – contributing to the global burden of disease with millions of cases of respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer each year.

Climate Change: These potential changes would also dramatically decrease the amount of greenhouse gas pollution in the air, which contributes directly to climate change.  With changing temperature patterns around the globe, one side-effect is the spread of infectious disease.  Many infectious diseases are spread by vectors like mosquitoes that thrive in warmer temperatures.  As the climate warms, diseases like dengue fever, malaria, and tropical parasites could spread to new territories.

These are just two examples of the potential impact that the EPA and U.S. environmental policy could have on global health in the coming years.  McCarthy’s nomination is an exciting one for environmental health advocates around the country – keep an eye on her to see what kind of action we see from the EPA in the coming months as it could impact global health. Stay up to date on environmental health news by following our member organizations, including the Public Health Institute.

This post was written by Olivia Noble at the Global Health Council.