Thirty years ago I published this editorial (Where is the EPA’s sense of decency?, Journal of Bioelectricity 3(12):1–2, 1984).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970 “to protect and enhance our environment today and for future generations.” During the next decade, it earned a reputation as one of the more respected federal agencies. Its decisions were generally well-reasoned, and occupied the middle ground. In 1980 Ronald Reagan appointed Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of the EPA, a choice widely criticized at the time as being based on political grounds. During the next several years there was an exodus of key professionals, and the EPA became a demoralized, do-nothing Agency. Following the Superfund scandal William Ruckleshaus was appointed to head the EPA. He was supposed to replace politics with science as the basis for EPA decisions, and set the Agency moving again. Under his leadership, however, things did not improve significantly.

After examining the way the EPA responded to evidence of formaldehyde’s carcinogenicity, an MIT professor reported in Science (222, 894, 1983) that the Agency’s actions revealed “the interplay between politics and science policy in regulatory determinations. In some cases there were significant and unjustified departures from reasoned decision-making.” The Agency’s decision was, basically, to do nothing. An EPA official delivered essentially the same message to a national conference on toxics in ground-water: “We don’t have any quick fixes. This is going to be a long-term problem.” Much the same thing occurred in the area of lead poisoning. A 1979 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that children with high lead levels scored lower on IQ tests. The EPA then assembled what official of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health called a “hanging jury” (Science, 222, 907, 1983) which strongly attacked the study, thereby destroying the main argument for holding lead pollution to low levels—that is, the main argument for EPA to take action.

The situation reached a new low with the efforts of the EPA in the matter of safety limits for environmental exposure to electromagnetic fields. In its Draft Study, the Agency’s staff arbitrarily adopted the approach that only thermal effects need he considered. But since there are no significant thermal-level exposures in the environment, the conclusion pregnant in the Draft was that there is no need for action to protect the public health. Ruckleshaus himself appointed a panel to review the Draft which consisted almost exclusively of individuals well known for their thermal-effects-only viewpoint. The majority view among scientists world-wide—that there exist biological effects due to non-thermal electromagnetic fields—was virtually unrepresented. It was not surprising when this newest “hanging jury” largely endorsed the staff’s approach. Worse still, was the avowed purpose of the EPA which is to issue so-called guidance to the twenty or so Federal Agencies that have a role in regulating the electromagnetic spectrum, and not to enact regulations pursuant to its broad congressional mandate. The EPA intends to palm off its responsibility to other federal agencies that have vastly less expertise and that are even more certain not to act.

The EPA was created by Congress to protect Americans from risks and threats against which the individual is almost completely defenseless. The public expects the EPA to be honest and fair, and to make decisions that protect the health of the American people. Instead, the EPA’s recent performance has been woefully reminiscent of what occurred at the McCarthy hearings 30 years ago when attorney Joe Welch, in complete revulsion of the Senator’s performance, said ‘You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?’

During the halcyon days of the early 1970s, I was a young scientist, a young lawyer, and still under the influence of the philosophical outlook I had learned from the Jesuits, especially the ideal of pursuing the common good. When I wrote the editorial, I interpreted the descent of the EPA into mediocrity as a transient aberration wrought by political leaders who had chosen to remain perpetually ignorant of science because that perspective served and fueled their notion of personal freedom that was so outlandish as to be antithetical to the common good. But in the twilight of my still-active career in science, I have a deeper understanding regarding the distinction between the natural trajectories of federal agencies whose primary mission is to protect the public, like the EPA and the FDA, in distinction to federal agencies whose primary mission is to set the rules whereby human beings can function as warring atoms of self-interest, like the FCC and the SEC. I see now that the fate of all protective federal agencies is to sink into mediocrity, because they are inherently at war with powerful interests that promote extreme personal liberty. These agencies avoid operating on a war footing, which is dangerous and unstable, by always seeking a middle ground between common sense and rational science on one hand, and the fervent desires of radical pro-personal-freedom constituencies, whether motivated by money, philosophy, or religion. Thus mediocrity was in the EPA’s genes, and it should not be criticized as harshly as I did in the editorial.

My error back then—and I was not the only one who committed it—was to assume that federal agencies operated primarily on behalf of the public good. They do not. They are primarily arbiters of the eternal war between the Jesuit concept of the public good and the Ayn Rand concept of the private good. What I had perceived in 1980 as a Reagan-led transient period in the EPA’s evolution was actually the end of the transient period between the high hopes we had in 1970, and the attractor of mediocrity that appeared in 1980.

Independent thinking and reasoning was another equally important principle I learned from the Jesuits. If you adopt that perspective, and make an effort to acquire information about the world rather than simply dwelling on the content of your own mind or the vividness of your own beliefs, you will arrive at the notion of personal responsibility. Everyone gets sick and dies. The only salient questions are how long before those processes develop, and what the quality of life will be when they do. If your primary goal is to optimize life and health, the information needed to do so is available, not like an apple to be reflexively picked and eaten, but like something to be discovered after a proper effort. You have the responsibility to seek that information. It would be foolish to expect the government to keep you healthy and lengthen your life. If you choose not to make the effort, then you can still hope that there will be a pill or an operation that will fix your problem.