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Gina Solomon’s Blog

Monitoring: For Your Health

Gina Solomon

Posted December 4, 2008 in Health and the Environment

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Maybe it's because I'm a doctor, or maybe it's just that I'm a nerd; but data and numbers are really important to me. When I see patients in clinic, I monitor their vital signs, try to do a good physical exam, and check lab tests. I do these things even in seemingly healthy patients. To do otherwise would be malpractice. When the patient is sick, the importance of close monitoring is even clearer. The beeping of monitors in the intensive care unit is a reassuring sound, because it means that every patient in there is being watched and supported at all times.

The kind of monitoring that is done by doctors to track our health is parallel to the monitoring that has gone on for years to check on the health of our air, water, and food. Checking the vital signs of our environment requires careful reporting and tracking of industrial emissions, and the lab tests include assays for contaminants in our drinking water and air. This critical job is usually done by the federal government.

I'm sickened to report that the final legacy of the Bush Administration is monitoring malpractice on a huge scale.

Over the past year, my team of researchers has been monitoring the governmental monitoring programs. First we found that the thresholds requiring industries to report toxic releases had been changed, allowing polluters to report less information about toxic substances they release into the air or dump into the water. Soon after that, water utilities were no longer required to test drinking water for certain widespread hazardous chemicals. More recently, the White House made a last-minute change that lets hundreds of lead polluters off the hook for air monitoring.

But that's not all. Over the past eight years, budget cuts have slashed deeply into critical programs at agencies ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Programs tracking foodborne illness at CDC have suffered, as have programs that measure toxic chemical residues in people. The USGS program that measures stream flow has been cut, even though climate change will increase our need for information about flooding. Worse still, just a few months after Congressional hearings about the widespread presence of pharmaceutical residues in water, the USGS program that tests for pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in our nation's waterways was destroyed by budget cuts. The details of our findings are in a report released today.

These cuts have hacked at the scientific foundation of environmental and public health protections in our country. It's like walking into the ICU and instead of the reassuring beeps of the monitors, there is only ghastly silence.

The new administration needs to plug in the monitors, get their finger back on the patient's pulse, and send some samples off to the lab STAT. Otherwise the long-term prognosis for this patient will be poor.

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