What You Don’t Know Can Definitely Hurt You: The Bush Administration’s Failures to Protect Our Health

You (like most people) may assume that there's a federal government agency (or two or three) able to carefully watch over what you, your family, and your community come into contact with on a daily basis. In your mind, these agencies are conducting daily sampling to ensure there's nothing health-harming in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the toys and consumer products you bring into your house and play, eat, and sleep with. It's a reassuring assumption, but sadly ... it just ain't so.

A new report being released today describes the wake-up call that my colleagues in NRDC's Health and Environment Program discovered when they took a closer look at the real state of current health monitoring programs in the United States.  What they found is truly alarming: drastic budget cuts in many of the federal agencies charged with protecting our health and environment, monitoring programs eliminated, and polluters' reporting requirements weakened or removed. Instead of protection, the last eight years of the Bush administration have let some key monitoring programs wither and die.

My research considers the many ways that global warming harms health. Remember that global warming is already having an effect on the environment and on our health - today. There's been a 24 percent increase in storms that shower us with extreme precipitation over the last 60 years in the United States. More intense and more frequent extreme storms wash disease-causing parasites into drinking water supplies and can cause illnesses like cryptosporidiosis (a nasty, long-lasting watery diarrhea that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems). So why have there been budget cuts at the US Geological Survey (USGS) that cripple streamflow monitoring - the only way we have to gauge the effect of deluge and drought on surface waters?

Or another climate-health link: increasingly frequent foodborne illnesses are likely, since pathogens like salmonella thrive in warmer temperatures. But budget cuts of $2 million have gutted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) food-related illness tracking program - and this at a time when food poisoning outbreaks are increasing.

Without this vital information on who is getting sick, from what causes, and watching environmental exposures, how can we help ourselves to stay healthy? Without understanding what's happening today, how can we possibly meet the challenges of a globally warming future? What we don't know can definitely hurt us, and we need to be sure that the government agencies charged with the mighty task of monitoring our health and environment get the restored funding support they need. It's time to breathe life back into these programs, and reduce the hidden risks of what we don't know.

I think our health is worth it.