Personal Health: Ignoring Science at Our Peril


All the while the polar and Arctic ice caps are melting and, despite dire warnings from highly reputable scientists, the current administration is taking little action to protect its citizens from future climactic disasters that scientists say are sure to come. Instead, there has been a push to bring back coal and rescind regulatory measures that helped to clean the air and water of pollutants.

Likewise, a loosening of regulations and appointments of agency administrators with strong ties to the industries they oversee threaten the safety and healthfulness of the foods and beverages we consume and feed to our most vulnerable: children, the elderly and those with compromised immunity. Agencies tasked with protecting public health are under fire and working with diminished resources.

Must it take a calamity, like an outbreak of food poisoning that kills tens of thousands or a deadly epidemic of an infectious disease, to awaken Congress to the dangers that lie ahead and goad it to protect the citizens it was elected to serve?

History is filled with examples of scientifically sound guidance that was ignored or pilloried by those in power. In the late 1990s, for example, half a dozen major health agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, endorsed a national needle exchange program to curb the spread of H.I.V./AIDS. But President Bill Clinton rejected the advice, and the resulting H.I.V. infections cost the health care system as much as half a billion dollars.

Last March, Scott Pruitt, newly appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency, rejected the previous administration’s proposal to ban agricultural use of a Dow Chemical Company pesticide, chlorpyrifos. The agency’s scientific advisory panel had concluded in 2016 that children risked irreversible brain damage and neurodevelopmental problems from very low levels of exposure to food residues of the chemical, which continues to be widely used on fruits and vegetables.

In hopes of bolstering the coal industry, Mr. Pruitt, who has rejected established climate science, has also scrapped regulations in the Clean Power Plan put in place by the Obama administration to minimize heat-trapping pollution. A warming trend in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic in recent decades has been strongly associated with the spread of potentially deadly marine pathogens like Vibrio cholerae, the cause of cholera, and V. parahaemolyticus, a cause of food poisoning, and could lead to widespread outbreaks.

Food safety measures are also in jeopardy. Enforcement has been delayed indefinitely of crucial rules in the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted seven years ago with bipartisan support to protect consumers from exposure to dangerous pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Some of those who harvest, package and store foods produced on farms are now exempt from the act’s rules to prevent contamination of the food supply. Yet, each year 48 million people in this country are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from preventable food-borne diseases.

The lax food safety rules of the European Union should be a lesson to heed. France and its allies are currently reeling under massive recalls of baby formula and other products contaminated with salmonella, a crisis said to stem from weak regulations that allowed tainted products to make their way into supermarkets and pharmacies even weeks after the problem was discovered.

Nutritional depletion from rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is another risk to the healthfulness of the American food supply, according to some experts. Dr. Samuel S. Myers, principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues linked significant reductions in zinc, iron and protein in staple grain crops like rice and wheat and smaller reductions in protein in legumes to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

The researchers demonstrated these effects by growing 41 different varieties of staple crops under conditions likely to exist by 2050 unless there is a major decline in carbon dioxide pollution.

In an interview, Dr. Myers explained that even a small reduction in the protein content of grains could increase carbohydrate consumption and raise the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease that already endanger our overweight population.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming can provide not only long-term benefits for public health but also have immediate health “co-benefits,” according to Dr. Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

An increase in walking and cycling instead of a reliance on fuel-powered vehicles, for example, would help to counter diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic ailments linked to a sedentary lifestyle. A shift to “environmentally more sustainable healthy diets,” he notes, would not only help to counter greenhouse gases but also lead to reductions in all-cause mortality.

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