Legislation is needed to close the environmental health gaps in the Polluters Pay Principle

By Eric Feigen, NCL Health Policy Intern

Today, more than 40% of Americans live in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution and every year, millions of deaths and chronic illnesses have been found to be directly caused by various pollutant types. This represents the human cost inherent in environmental degradation. Despite this, policy-makers and regulatory agencies continue to ignore public health consequences when crafting legislation designed to address environmental issues nationwide.

The current approach towards addressing both climate change and environmental damage is rooted in the Polluters Pay Principle (PPP). This commonly accepted practice dictates that those who pollute are responsible for not only abatement costs, but also compensating those adversely affected by their actions. From the Clean Air Act to the more recent Inflation Reduction Act, PPP is the fundamental framework for the majority of environmental legislation in the U.S.

The core mechanism used in PPP is cost-benefit-analysis. Due to the fact that polluters receive a benefit from polluting, in the form of profits, they must correspondingly compensate individuals for the negative externality their pollution creates. For example, paying for a water treatment plant in order to ensure a safe water supply for a community.

One of the most significant externalities of pollution is long-term health conditions. High levels of particle air pollutants are linked to a variety of health issues including asthma, cancer, infant mortality, and premature death. However, as previously mentioned, while 40% of Americans live in places with failing grades in air quality, not all of these individuals have asthma. This illustrates the uncertainty inherent in including the costs to humans’ health in the PPP’s cost benefit analysis. Using this logic, Michigan v. EPA set the precedent for omitting the negative impact polluters have on health from PPP-based calculations.

The Public Health Air Quality Act is one solution to the uncertainty dilemma surrounding pollutants and chronic health conditions. This is because the Act sets thresholds for pollutant levels at the point where the pollutant becomes harmful to human health. In essence, while previous legislation has made polluters pay for the right to pollute, the standards in this legislation will prohibit contamination after the air quality reaches a dangerous level. Furthermore, the Act will also mandate new air pollution monitoring programs and allow the EPA to follow the “precautionary principle”, which errors on the side of safety when determining what levels of pollution may be harmful to humans.

Another arena where PPP must be supplemented is equity. While designed to reduce environmental damage nationwide, PPP fails to address how pollution disproportionately harms Black and Brown communities. An example of this is exposure to PM 2.5, an air pollutant responsible for upwards of 85,000 deaths a year. A recent study highlights that while the Clean Air Act has led to a nationwide decrease PM 2.5 related health conditions, the number of deaths this pollutant causes in communities of color has remained constant.

Climate change and environmental degradation are just as much a public health issue as they are an environmental one. Policy-makers have the obligation to create legislation to supplement PPP policies to mitigate the harm polluters inflict on public health and ensure an equitable approach to environmental regulation and cleanup.


Reducing the mountain of waste on airplanes

On a flight to Idaho earlier this week, I brought my own coffee mug. My flight attendant was unexpectedly enthusiastic: “Anything that will help save the planet,” she said. I do not find this to be the case at Starbucks, where baristas insist on giving me a new plastic cup when I’m getting my iced tea, or at the Nespresso counter at Bloomingdales, which recently refused to serve me a coffee in my own cup. Reducing our personal footprint should be a big issue for all of us as we see the rapid pace of climate change and what it is doing to our beloved planet.  

At home, I can compost food scraps, choose to take public transportation, minimize food waste, and drive a hybrid car.  But it’s tough to do your part to conserve, reduce, reuse, and recycle and try to “save the planet,” as an airline passenger.  The New York Times reports that the average air passenger generates three pounds of waste in the form of plastic cups, the headphones, food left on plates, wrapping for snacks, and plastic cutlerymultiply that times 4 billion passengers a year, and it really adds up! 

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg opted to sail to New York from Europe to avoid being part of the problem: emissions from airplanes.  

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group representing the airlines, estimated that planes generated 6.7 million tons of cabin waste last year. Another group that studied the waste found that it broke down as 33 percent food waste, 28 percent cardboard and paper, and 12 percent plastic.   

So, what are the airlines doing, and how can consumers be part of the solution? Well, airlines are under pressure to conserve precisely because consumers are demanding they do so, as the New York Times article reported.  Air France said it would eliminate 210 million singleuse plastic items like cups and coffee stirrers. Qantas has removed individually packaged servings of milk and Vegemite, and now serves meals in containers made from sugar cane, and utensils made from crop starch. Some United Airlines flights use “fully compostable or recyclable service ware.”  

Consumers can inquire about recycling products and demand changes in rigid rules on tossing out untouched food and drink, in place supposedly to protect agriculture. The trade group IATA estimates that these untouched items make up 20 percent of total airline waste. As reported by the New York Times, companies employed to help reduce airline waste are making dishes from pressed wheat bran and “sporks” from coconut palm wood. 

Asking the airlines what they are doing to reduce waste is a good start. Let’s press the airlines for answers andwhile we are it: what about hybrid or electric engines on planes? That is a topic we can explore another day. 

Trump’s fuel economy rollbacks: a loss for workers, consumers, the environment

headshot of NCL LifeSmarts intern Alexa

By NCL LifeSmarts intern Elaina Pevide

Cars are baked into American life – around 83 percent of households own one – so any change in the cost or availability of gasoline affects an enormous group of Americans.

Although most of us have grumbled about the cost of gas at some point—and memories of the Great Recession and its dramatic spikes in gas prices are enough to send shivers down the spine of many Americans—some Americans are affected more than others by increases. Did you know that low-income households spend twice as much of their income on gasoline as other Americans? For this group, fuel economy is an especially close-to-home issue.

The Obama Administration made significant headway in improving fuel economy standards and fostering American innovation when it announced the One National Program in 2010. That program unified the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas emission standards with the fuel economy standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This initiative set long-term goals for fuel efficiency aiming at Model Year 2025, when vehicular CO2 emissions were slated to be reduced by half. The One National Program was a win-win for consumers and the environment. Obama’s initiative would have made the American automotive industry a world leader in environmentally-friendly innovation while also giving the U.S. a huge advantage in a turbulent global economy adapting to the threat of climate change.

Perhaps the greatest benefactor of Obama’s One National Program was the average consumer. Doubling fuel economy means that consumers get twice the bang for their buck at the pump. These benefits would eventually help the less affluent the most, many of whom own used vehicles. Low-income secondhand car owners would pay little of the front-end cost of innovation, but would still save hundreds of dollars on gas on later model used cars.

During the last 7 months of the Obama Administration, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy determined that, given the success of the program thus far, the program would maintain its initial goal of a 54.5 mpg fuel economy standard by 2025. Unfortunately, the Trump administration did not take long to backpedal on this dramatic win for consumers, workers, and the environment.

On March 15, 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reopened the evaluations. Two weeks later, they provided their disappointing and controversial results: the Trump EPA did not believe in the efficacy of the One National Program. By August, NHTSA and the EPA announced a new rule, called the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, the euphemistically-named rollback that handed the automotive industry a big win. The federal actions revoked the ability of California and 13 other states to enforce their own higher standards for environmentally-friendly vehicles.

The SAFE Vehicles Rule is misnamed. The Trump Administration is, in our view, mistaken in its assertions that the freeze and rollback of fuel economy standards will benefit anyone. An analysis by the Consumer Federation of America found that the program has already saved consumers $500 billion, with an extra $400 billion to be found in health, macroeconomic and environmental benefits. Trump’s plan will end these savings and cost the average American household $4,500. We know that fuel efficiency creates a healthy economy, environment, and, thus, a healthier society. Sadly, the current Administration has thrown that out the window.

Global warning and climate change are urgent problems. According to an article from Union of Concerned Scientists, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. About five pounds comes from the extraction, production, and delivery of the fuel, while the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions–more than 19 pounds per gallon–comes right out of a car’s tailpipe.

Improving vehicular fuel efficiency is crucial to the future of the United States. High fuel economy standards reduce our need for foreign oil and encourage American companies to keep up with the green innovation around the world. As Europe, China, and other regions address global warming and reducing auto emissions, America is rolling back the clock. As a nation heavily reliant on cars for daily life, we call upon President Trump, his federal appointees, and the auto industry, to reverse these foolhardy decisions and demand improved fuel economy–to set us back on track towards the goals we were on course to meet just a few years ago.

Elaina Pevide is a student at Brandeis University where she majors in Public Policy and Psychology with a minor in Economics. She expects to graduate in May of 2020.

Three reasons scientists believe bugs are the next beef

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

There’s a thin line between hunger and disgust when deep-fried tarantulas and smoked barbeque crickets are on the menu. Many scientists argue that animal protein is not environmentally sustainable, so alternatives–like bugs–may be the answer to the perils of global warming. Recent research supports eating bugs as a way to maintain a protein-rich diet while benefiting the environment.

Infographic comparing the water, feed, and land needs of cattle against the same needs for bugs farming

Why bugs are slowly crawling into our everyday diets

As the world population continues to grow, so will demand for animal protein. By 2050, we’ll be eating more than two-thirds the animal protein we do today, causing a strain to our planet’s resources. The surge in demand for animal protein has also contributed to an increase in greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide). These gases lead to extreme weather conditions, ozone depletion, increased danger of wildland fires, loss of biodiversity, stresses to food-producing systems and the global spread of infectious diseases. Even today, climate changes are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually.

Most westerners prefer beef over bugs

While many of us westerners may gag at the thought of maggots in our sausage, more than 2 billion people throughout the world have been eating bugs as a regular part of their diets for millennia. But historically, for westerners, livestock not only yields meat, but also milk and milk products, their hides or skins provide warmth, they are suitable for plough traction, and act as a means of transport. Because of the use of these animals, the benefits of eating insects in many societies has failed to gain much interest. Also, certain insects are transmitters of disease and are virtually a nuisance.

So, why should we eat bugs?

In 2013, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, urged global citizens to eat more bugs for three reasons:

  1. They’re healthier for you…and tasty too!
    • Bugs are a healthy, nutritious alternative to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef, and fish (from ocean catch).
    • Many insects are rich in protein, good fats, and high in calcium, iron, and zinc.
    • Insects already form a traditional part of many regional and national diets.
    • Bugs can be used as an ingredient substitute for almost any recipe. Here’s a link with ideas on how to make some delicious bug treats!
  2. They’re safer for the environment
    • Bugs promoted as food emit 75 percent fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than most livestock.
    • Insect rearing is not necessarily a land-based activity and does not require as much land as livestock.
    • Because they are cold-blooded, insects are efficient at converting feed into protein (crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein).
    • According to the Harvard Political Review, producing one pound of beef requires 10 pounds of feed, 1,000 gallons of water, and 200 square feet of pasture. In contrast, producing one pound of insects only requires two pounds of feed, one gallon of water, and two cubic feet of land space.
  3. They’re lower in cost
    • Bug harvesting/rearing is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers economic opportunities to all levels of society.
    • Insect rearing can be low-tech or very sophisticated, depending on the level of investment.

Recent advances in research and development show edible bugs to be a promising alternative to meat for both human consumption and as feedstock. But to make this a reality, regulatory frameworks for safety and nutrition will need to be developed and government, industry, and academia will need to work together.

In the meanwhile, knowing the benefits can help turn disgust to hunger when tarantulas or crickets appear on the menu… Something to think about!

America’s consumers left out of latest Dieselgate compensation

When Americans hear “Dieselgate,” they often think of Volkswagen. That’s because the automaker was investigated and sued by the U.S. government and consumers for installing emissions-cheating software in its diesel cars. The cost to VW for these actions could soon top $35 billion, globally – including $25 billion extracted by U.S. authorities in fines, penalties, civil damages, and restitution. But American consumers are still awaiting compensation for similar emissions cheating by other automakers.

Daimler-owned Mercedes Benz, BMW, GM, Renault, and FIAT are all accused of duping customers into thinking they were buying environmentally-friendly diesels that, in reality, were breaking air pollution laws. While the automakers haven’t yet faced consequences in the United States, European authorities are protecting their countries’ consumers by holding the companies to account. The European Union is investigating Daimler, BMW, and VW for colluding to limit clean emissions technologies, and countries like Switzerland have banned diesel models from Mercedes and Porsche.

German authorities launched an investigation into Daimler in March last year for suspected diesel emissions fraud. Two months later, state authorities raided Daimler’s headquarters and other sites around the country, confiscating files and computer drives. In June this year, the German transport ministry ordered Mercedes to recall up to 774,000 cars across Europe after tests found they manipulated diesel exhaust emissions.

In October this year, carmakers began to announce concessions. Daimler said it would offer major exchange incentives to its German customers of up to 10,000 euros (US$11,564) to swap out old diesel vehicle models with “more advanced exhaust gas treatment technology and substantially lower emissions.” Daimler also said it will participate in a federal hardware retrofit program paid for on its own dime. Meanwhile, Volkswagen also offered new incentives of up to 10,000 euros, including on several of its Audi models, and Renault became the first non-German car company in the country to offer similar trade-in perks.

If German customers are receiving thousands of dollars in compensation, shouldn’t American customers be receiving something too?

The answer might rest on differing levels of crackdown. Daimler is being investigated over its emissions systems by the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resource Board, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and other federal and state authorities, but the U.S. government has yet to take any public action. In February this year, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) – each of whom NCL has honored with our highest consumer protection award over the years – called on the Justice Department to take appropriate action against Mercedes. After all, in the United States, there are estimated to be up to hundreds of thousands of Mercedes diesels that could be polluting up to 91 times the legal standard.

Earlier this month, the White House met with the CEOs of Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW, including a face-to-face with President Trump. Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of the diesel emissions cheating or the ongoing investigations involving Daimler. If this Administration doesn’t take action against emissions cheaters, it will be up to legislators, the courts, and citizens to hold them accountable. German pressure helped secure buy-backs and retrofits for German consumers; American consumers also deserve to be compensated.

How tariffs hit home for low-income consumers – National Consumers League

Earlier this year, I examined how 25 percent tariffs on a range of Chinese goods would impact smartphone users, particularly low-income consumers who rely on their phones as their primary means of Internet access. As new data comes out about the impact of tariffs, it’s becoming clearer that these tariffs will hit low-income consumers particularly hard.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the humble thermostat. If you grow up living through Virginia summers like I did, you quickly learn what a potent combination heat and humidity can be. Stepping out of that sticky mess into a cool home makes you appreciate what a marvel modern air conditioning can be. While many of us take heating and air conditioning for granted, for millions of low-income consumers, home energy costs eat up a big chunk of their budgets.

It’s for this reason that home energy waste can be such a problem. A surprising amount of money is wasted because homes are heated and cooled in an inefficient manner. Think of all those hours you pay to heat and cool an empty home while you’re at work and the kids are at school. While middle- and upper-income households may spend as little as 1 to 5 percent of their incomes on heating and cooling, it is estimated that low-income consumers often spend anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of their incomes home energy bill. For consumers whose budgets are already stretched thin, wasting money on heating and cooling can make it even harder to make ends meet.

This is where the humble thermostat comes in. These relatively simple devices — turning on the heating and cooling when it’s needed, turning it off when it’s not — play a key role in regulating home energy costs. In recent years, technology companies have begun to market dozens of different “smart” thermostats to help make heating and cooling more efficient. Thanks to smart thermostats, consumers in Minnesota can return home to pre-warmed homes in the winter or turn up the heat remotely from work if their kids get sent home from school early due to an impending snow storm.

The savings can be significant, with smart thermostat makers like Nest and Honeywell claiming more than $100 in annual household savings. Smart thermostat prices running in the $150-200 and with many utility companies offering rebate programs, the upfront cost can get paid for in a relatively manageable amount of time.

According to International Trade Commission statistics, the majority of thermostats in the United States come from China. Hiking up the price of smart thermostats by 25 percent through tariffs makes it less likely that price-conscious consumers will be able to justify that up-front cost, leading to less efficient homes. It’s for this reason that tariffs on smart thermostats from China could have an especially negative impact–not just on household managers who are thinking of buying one, but even on those who don’t. The costs of energy waste hit everyone in the form of higher energy prices and the environmental impacts stemming from excess power generation to run all those air conditioners and HVAC systems.

While middle-and-upper income consumers may not feel this pinch, low-income consumers will. The indirect impacts of higher prices on thermostats is just one way that low-income consumers, in particular, are affected by tariffs. As President Trump considers slapping yet more tariffs on Chinese goods, these impacts should give the Administration pause and, hopefully, lead it to reconsider this harmful trade policy. Fortunately, the Administration recently announced that it is considering excluding certain products from tariff action. Let’s hope that it considers the effects that anti-trade policies will have on the most vulnerable and exclude thermostats from further tariffs.

As consumers cry for more fuel-efficient vehicles, carmakers go the opposite direction – National Consumers League

fuel_efficiency.jpgWritten by NCL Intern Trang Nguyen

In March 2017, after a meeting with automakers in Detroit, President Trump began the process of rolling back a set of 2012 automotive emission standards, which were set to raise the fuel efficiency of new cars from 27.5 to 54.4 miles per gallon (MPG) by 2025. This goal would have reduced greenhouse gas emission by 6 billion tons over the lifetime of a new car and saved 2 million gallons of oil per day.

U.S. automakers claim that the emission goals of the future will increase car prices and lower sales. However, multiple reports and surveys have found that consumers want and expect to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reported recently that SUVs, crossovers, and pickups whose MPGs increased by over 10 percent between 2011 and 2016 had a 59 percent increase in sales. Vehicles whose MPGs increased by less than 10 percent only experienced a 41 percent growth. Though the sales for both types have increased, it is clear that consumers want to buy vehicles with far greater fuel efficiency.

A survey by Consumer Reports shows that 53 percent of all American vehicle owners want better fuel economy with the next car they purchase. Eighty-four percent of American adults feel that automakers should continue to improve fuel economy for all types of vehicles, while 75 percent think the government should continue to require automakers to improve fuel economy, and 70 percent think standards for fuel efficiency should be higher. And 60 percent are willing to pay extra for more fuel-efficient vehicles, which can recover the additional cost within 5 years. 

All the numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: Consumers want more fuel-efficient cars. For companies to lobby for reversals on their agreed-upon fuel efficiency goals goes against the wishes of their own customers. Indeed, automakers are already achieving these goals with improved technologies. According to the EPA, there are already more than 100 car and SUV models that meet standards stretching beyond 2020, and some already meeting the 2025 standards. And nearly half of the 2017 vehicle models are actually cheaper for their initial costs (and fuel cost in five years) compared to their 2011 models

CFA rightly argues that U.S. car manufacturers are asking for trouble – as they did in 2009 – when the government had to bail out these companies because of the large number of fuel-inefficient cars they could not sell. Lowering the MPGs standard will spell trouble once again for American car companies as it puts them at a disadvantage compared to their Asian and European counterparts, which will continue to improve the fuel efficiency of their products pursuant to international consumer demand, regardless of how the U.S. rollback turns out.

NCL offers American automakers some advice: do not repeat your mistakes. Listen to the wishes of consumers. Consumers want better, more fuel-efficient cars. Rolling back the fuel-efficiency standards is bad policy: bad for the environment, bad for consumers, bad for the economy, and bad for business!

Fish farms: Good, bad, or downright ugly? – National Consumers League

fishfarms.jpgDid you know fish accounts for 17 percent of the world’s protein intake? That may not seem like a lot, but by 2050, farmed fish production is expected to more than double to meet global demands. Fish are the most environmentally-friendly animal protein to produce, efficiently converting feed into meat while generating a fraction of the greenhouse gasses of livestock production. But as it stands now, our earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans are fished to their limits.

Aquaculture (neat, huh?) will become vitally important in the near future to keep up with demand. Though industrial farming gets a lot of slack across the board, fish farming may be our answer to fulfilling the animal protein needs of the world’s growing population.

Why do fish farms get such a bad rap? For starters, antibiotics are an ever-growing concern in industrial farming. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock. It’s estimated that farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound than any other livestock. Antibiotic resistant bacteria, created as a result of antibiotic overuse, are responsible for the deaths of 23,000 Americans each year.  Cramped underwater pens lead to filth and sickness, raising concerns about the spread of disease. Contention also surrounds what farmed fish are eating. In some cases, farmed fish eat other wild fish, negatively impacting the ocean ecosystems; in other cases they are fed pellets, which may not adequately meet their nutritional needs, and result in fattier, less nutritious, and less flavorful fish.

These problems are undoubtedly challenging, but attempts are being made to overcome them. Fish farmers are starting to open “on land” fish farms that eliminate any chances of diseases spreading in the ocean. Scientists are also finding new ways to filter water and keep farmed fish in a contained, clean environment so antibiotics are not required. These fish are reported to grow twice as fast as their ocean-raised counterparts. Advancements have been made in raising higher-maintenance ocean fish in land bound, sterile environments, making on-land fish farms a viable option for some rarer, more expensive species. Fish farmers are using less fishmeal, or ground wild fish, than they were 20 years ago, further taking pressure off the overfished ocean.

Consumers play a large role in the positive reinforcement of developing and using new sustainable fish farm technologies. The majority of fish we eat, 91 percent, comes from abroad. At home, we ship away third of what we catch. Buying American-grown and processed fish is not only more sustainable because it isn’t shipped as far, but it also supports developing cleaner ways to farm fish in our own country.  At the grocery store, consumers can keep an eye out for seafood that bares a Sustainable Seafood Certification.

Consumers who are concerned about farmed fish and wish to only purchase fish raised in the wild should try to eat fish and shellfish that fall lower down on the food chain. These fish are less likely to negatively impact the environment because they require less feed. Tilapia, catfish, and carp are all good options. Mollusks, like clams, oysters, and scallops, are the most environmentally-friendly source of animal protein, as they don’t use freshwater and they serve to clean the environment around them. Fish play a key role in fulfilling the protein needs of the world population. Now is the time to use purchasing power as a vote to promote positive aquaculture practices and reduce our impact on the ocean.