Whether or not one believes the adage that budgets are moral documents, how people or organizations choose to spend their money is clearly a reflection of their priorities. So it was interesting to read in a March 20 Politico report that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spent more than $105,000 on first class flights last year, with an additional $58,000 on charter flights and a military jet. This brought his travel costs to $163,000 ― without tallying up the costs of his extensive security detail. The ostensible justification of the exorbitant price tag was to protect the health and well-being of Pruitt, given the security threats he has received.
As public health researchers, we can’t help but ask how the health and well-being of the American people could have been protected if that money had been spent a bit differently.
The proposed EPA budget for the upcoming fiscal year zeroes out the radon program, which received $158,000 in the current fiscal year, which is $5,000 less than what Pruitt spent on his extravagant travel. According to data from the EPA (ironically enough), radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year in the United States. Even a small decrease in radon exposure could make a big difference for public health. Allowing Pruitt to board a plane in the first boarding group and stretch his legs a bit during travel does not have quite the same benefit.
The proposed EPA budget also zeroes out the program to reduce risks from indoor air, currently funded at $144,000 – $19,000 less than Pruitt’s flight budget. Since most of us spend the majority of our time indoors, indoor air is a significant health concern. The EPA’s own website tells us exposure to indoor air pollution may present greater health risks than exposure to outdoor air pollution, with young children, the elderly and the chronically ill among the most vulnerable populations. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 4 million people around the world die each year due to indoor air pollution. Apparently, ensuring that Pruitt avoids interacting with the riffraff is more important than addressing a leading cause of death and disability.
These are just a few examples of modestly funded programs that the EPA proposes eliminating in its cruel and short-sighted budget. Residents of places like Houston, Puerto Rico and Flint, Michigan, which have all been affected by environmental hazards, undoubtedly would have many suggestions as to how the EPA could invest its limited resources. Luxury travel for Pruitt would probably not be very high on their lists.
In Flint, residents still wait for their lead drinking water pipes to be replaced. In the meantime, they find peace of mind through their continued use of recommended drinking water filters from manufacturers like Brita and Pur, which average about $25 each. Pruitt’s ability to enjoy snacks and a complimentary glass of wine while in flight translates to approximately 6,520 drinking water filters ― or 652,000 gallons of clean water ― for Flint’s long-suffering residents, according to our team’s calculations.
Given that Pruitt seems to be spending an excessive amount of money for modest benefits, one might question his ability to compare the costs and benefits of his decisions. The EPA has estimated that the public health and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act outweigh the costs by 30 to 1, and by 2020 it is estimated that the economic benefit will reach $2 trillion. In spite of this overwhelming evidence, Pruitt’s budget reduces the money for clean air management by nearly 50 percent. Apparently, allowing children with asthma to miss additional days of school is acceptable, but we cannot afford to sacrifice the EPA administrator’s premium in-flight entertainment.
The EPA is empowered to take actions to prevent people from getting sick. When those actions are not taken, the rest of us reap the unfortunate consequences. The “back to basics” agenda and budget currently being pitched by Pruitt takes an axe to programs that are intended to improve the health and well-being of our friends, families and neighbors. We suggest that a “back to basics” agenda instead start with the premise that the Environmental Protection Agency should focus on environmental protection – and with Pruitt moving to the back of the plane.
Jonathan Levy is professor and interim chair in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Lindsey Butler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Wendy Heiger-Bernays is clinical professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.