Tick, Tick, Tick… Time to Transition to a Healthy Budget for CDC

In mid-November, I was hiking in the Hudson River Valley with my dog Emmett on a perfect (if unseasonably warm) autumn day, a jaunt that was marred only by my shock at the number of ticks picked off both dog & owner. I know that climate-health research has found warmer winters allow disease-causing bugs like ticks and mosquitoes to survive and thrive for longer periods and move into new areas. Since tickborne Lyme disease is a nasty illness that I definitely want to avoid, the post-hike tick-picking reminded me that climate change is an issue that already affects people (and dogs) here and now.

I'm a health scientist at NRDC working on global warming and health issues. Some of my research looks at how heat-related deaths and illnesses, ground-level ozone smog, and infectious diseases like mosquito-borne dengue fever are all being impacted by the effects of living under a changing climate. But heat, smog and bugs are just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended). There's evidence that higher carbon dioxide concentrations will worsen airborne pollen and  - along with more health-harming smog - hit asthma and allergy sufferers with a double-whammy. Our food and water supplies are already being threatened by a combination of floods and droughts. And some experts think that environmental refugees - those people forced to leave their homes and livelihoods after increasingly-frequent floods, droughts, or famine  - will be the most earth-shattering effect of global warming.

But the U.S. public health system - our first line of defense in meeting current and future health challenges - is already weaker than it has been in decades. Toxic pollution in the environment, workplace, and home can harm human health and cause disease. Programs that monitor and track the health of individuals and communities provide information needed to identify public health threats and prevent future harm. From measuring toxic chemicals in the human body to understanding the patterns of diseases in a community, these programs are needed to shed light on environmental contaminants and their effect on human health. Budget cuts have unraveled dozens of important programs that provide basic health protections like environmental monitoring and public health tracking of associated illnesses.

With the transition to our next Administration, we have an enormous opportunity to improve this situation. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the key government agency charged with this critical task. Yet look at our national response to Katrina & Rita - we were woefully un-prepared, and not that much has changed in the 3 years since - we must ramp up preparedness in our public health systems. Therefore, we are urging additional CDC budget to support their role as the premier lead agency with expertise to coordinate efforts across federal, state and county departments of health.  The grim convergence of a climate crisis striking a weakened health system can spell serious trouble in the years to come. Funding support is essential to help create the research foundation for climate health preparedness, and to strengthen the public health system that has been allowed to unravel over the past decade and which must now be rebuilt.

Here are some specific ideas that were part of the Green Group transition priorities released today. CDC funding must be increased to allow the agency to restore public health monitoring:

  • $1.7 million for the Hazardous Substances Emergency Event Surveillance System (HSEES), the only system that tracks health outcomes from chemical accidents and spills in the US;
  • full funding for the National Health Information Survey, which since 1957 has monitored the health of the nation and collected information to track disease patterns;
  • funding for occupational asthma and illness tracking programs;
  • $5-10 million for federal and state biomonitoring programs as well as the Environmental Public Health Tracking program which collects, combines and analyzes exposure and disease data.

Beyond this basic public health rebuilding, new funding support is essential to help create the research foundation for climate health preparedness. An additional $20 million is needed for CDC's National Center for Environmental Health to develop a national climate-health coordinating center and serve as an information clearinghouse, map vulnerabilities, conduct climate-health research and offer funding support and guidance to state and local preparedness efforts.

Because if we don't bring our public health infrastructure back up to speed, we won't be prepared with the knowledge or the tools to help ourselves and our neighbors cope with the next Katrina, the next heat wave, or the next tick, tick, tick after a hike in the country.