Linda Birnbaum worked at the highest levels of health and environmental research in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a toxicologist and microbiologist, her job was to do research and warn regulators like the EPA when she found a chemical or substance was toxic.

She describes the excitement of working in the 1970s when many environmental programs and regulations, like the Environmental Protection Act, were put in place.

“I think we were understanding that some chemicals that were important industrially might be very dangerous. It was an amazing time where I think the country, both sides of the aisle, were concerned about the chemicals that we were being exposed to and were willing to regulate them,” says Birnbaum.

But she found that over the years, the commitment to regulate started to fade under pressure from industry. She says pushback from industry and politicians turned her advice to the EPA into a political football, stalling or preventing regulation.

“Consultants or industry groups that would challenge me would send those same letters and talk to their legislators, and the legislators would talk to the agency muckety-mucks and question what I was saying or what my agency was saying,” says Birnbaum.

Birnbaum says the EPA often bows to industry concerns that the science isn’t robust enough to conclude there is a problem. But that’s just a smokescreen, she says. The science from the agencies she worked at was solid and went through several peer reviews.

“But they’ll say, ‘Oh, that's not the way to do it, or that concentration is too low. We don't believe the data above’ and it's amazing how their approach is what I'd call the defence attorney’s approach, which is you find something wrong in a paper, so you throw the whole paper out. So, the only papers they end up accepting are the papers that they paid for,” says Birnbaum.

The events playing out in the United States are also Canada’s story. The 1970s were significant for regulation, except the Canadian government was not quite as aggressive in laying out protections from chemicals and pollutants. The Department of Environment was created in 1971 and there were programs to address chemical pollutants causing acid rain. Other programs monitored marine pollution, endangered species and water quality. But like the U.S., the enthusiasm and commitment to regulate weakened. For example, in Canada, there is still no Clean Air Act and the Drinking Water Protection Act contains only guidelines, no mandatory requirements.

Canada's National Observer presents The Poison Detectives Episode 3 — The Best Regulations Money Can Buy. Listen wherever you get your podcasts!

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