On Tuesday, September 25, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) placed Dr. Ruth Etzel, head of the E.P.A.’s Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP), on administrative leave. An anonymous E.P.A. official told reporters that Dr. Etzel was not facing disciplinary action and that her staff were not given an explanation regarding the sudden administrative leave; E.P.A. spokesman John Konkus declined to provide a reason for the move as well.
“To take away the badge and access from a top career official and shove them out the door is very rare,” said Christine Todd Whitman, head of the E.P.A. under President George W. Bush. “If they’re not saying why they dismissed her, it creates the impression that it’s about the policies she worked on.”
The OCHP is a relatively small office of 15 full-time employees in Washington and 10 regional coordinators, with an annual budget of around $2 million. Created by President Bill Clinton in 1997, it advises E.P.A. leadership on the specific health and environmental protection needs of children. Thus the OCHP is typically in the position of pushing for stronger regulatory standards than those designed for adults, as children with developing bodies and brains are more vulnerable to environmental health hazards and pollutants.
This has put the office at odds with the Trump administration’s appointed head of the E.P.A., Andrew Wheeler - a former coal lobbyist who favors weakening environmental regulation in general. According to the New York Times, “The E.P.A. official who described Dr. Etzel’s departure cited a proposal outlining a strategy for reducing childhood lead exposure, which had been in development for more than a year with the involvement of 17 federal agencies. That proposal been stalled since early July, the official said.” The OCHP has also “repeatedly objected to a proposal by senior E.P.A. officials to weaken a set of chemical safety standards for children put in place under the Obama administration. The standard bars farm workers under the age of 18 from applying the most toxic pesticides to fruits and vegetables.
The contention between the OCHP and the E.P.A.’s senior leadership has lead many environmental health experts to believe that the move to put Dr. Etzel on administrative leave was politically motivated. “This seems like a sneaky way for the E.P.A. to get rid of this program and not be upfront about it,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist who directs the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College, has stated, “I see the placing of her on administrative leave as the opening gambit on dismantling the entire [OCHP].” Since Dr. Etzel’s placement on administrative leave, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for Dr. Etzel’s reinstatement, and for the E.P.A. to allow the office to continue its work “unimpeded.”
Click here for recent updates on the situation, including statements from Dr. Etzel and EPA representatives.