Environmental Regulation Makes America Great

Before there was climate-change denialism, there was lead-paint denialism.

Who is opposed to safe drinking water?

Photographer: Sarah Rice/Getty Images

As the Donald Trump administration ratchets up a multi-pronged attack on federal regulations, with two dozen environmental rules rolled back in Trump's first 100 days, it's worth recalling why many regulations exist in the first place. The story of Herbert Needleman is instructive.

Needleman was a doctor whose breakthrough research documented the effects of childhood exposure to low levels of lead. He gave rewards to kids who saved their lost teeth for him. Then he tested those teeth for lead.

"Children whose accumulated exposure to lead was highest in the group scored four points lower on an I.Q. test than youngsters whose exposure was at the lowest end," the New York Times reported in an obituary of Needleman published last week.  

Needleman established the link between an environmental hazard and intellectual impairment. But it was government regulation of the hazard that spared future children the debilitating effects of lead poisoning, and mitigated the damage it posed to the U.S. economy and society overall.   

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires lead-free pipes and plumbing fittings in facilities providing water for human consumption. Municipal campaigns for lead-paint abatement have safeguarded children from ingesting lead in their own homes. Regulations have restricted or eliminated lead in familiar products, including gasoline.

Those regulations were imposed over the objections of vested interests, said Jamie Kitman, a lawyer and New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, who has extensively researched the history of lead.

In an email, Kitman wrote:

Before there was global warming denialism, before there were efforts to mitigate asbestos or pesticides or tobacco or hundreds of other man-made chemicals making people sick, there was lead gasoline and the people who said, "You say it's dangerous; we say we're not sure."

Needleman's work, which established among other things the link between lead exposure and behavior disorders, IQ deficits and violent crime, was seminal. It caused him to be attacked viciously into the 1990s and 2000s -- long after lead was no longer ubiquitous -- by the lead trade organizations and mining outfits that had profited from this deadly heavy metal. For many anti-lead campaigners Needleman, in his stalwart refusal to be bullied or cowed, offered a shining example of scientific integrity in action.

In recent decades, regulation has been a constant target of Republicans. Surely, some regulations are outdated, and others never should've been written in the first place. But sensible regulation of harmful substances and activities is one of the great achievements of government.

As Bloomberg View columnist Cass Sunstein, an expert on the regulatory state, has written, "Almost no one likes regulation in the abstract, but if we are speaking of food safety, highway safety, air pollution standards or protection of disabled people against discrimination, it makes no sense to take a meat ax to the administrative state."

Regulating lead has been a public success. The comparison with climate science is imperfect, in part because of the all-consuming, global scale of climate. But a familiar pattern nonetheless holds: Science alerts us to a hazard, then government mobilizes, in fits and starts, to address it.

In the case of climate, it's unclear if government's awkward mobilization, followed by the Trump administration's retrenchment, will be sufficient to mitigate a disastrous cycle of warming. (Harm prevention and reduction are not really Trump's strong suits.)

But frustration about lack of action on climate stems less from a fear of the unknown than a documented experience of the known. Environmental regulation is part of American life. History shows that smart regulation of toxic water or acid rain or runoff improves life. Indeed, there are people living better lives -- in some cases living at all -- because of it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Francis Wilkinson at

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    Katy Roberts at

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