The Trump administration’s chaotic, incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic has already contributed to needless death and suffering. Buck-passing delays, internal squabbling, hostility to science, botched testing, and hyping quack cures all have made the pandemic worse, according to the medical experts Trump so blithely disdains. But the administration’s indifference to public health and safety long pre-dates the emergence of the coronavirus, and the peril to American lives will continue — unless an electoral cure can be found.
The pandemic has revealed just how seriously air pollution compromises lung health. Those with long-term exposure to particulate matter in the air, based on where they live or work, are far more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID-19. And yet Trump and his Republican enablers in Congress have steadily eroded protections in the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing these toxic emissions — methane, mercury, nitrous oxide, and more — from industrial and vehicle sources. The EPA’s own estimates suggest that just blocking the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan — which would have set limits on pollution from fossil fuel plants — will result in 120,000 additional asthma attacks and 1,630 premature deaths. And those calculations were made before the coronavirus emerged to target our lungs. Two years ago, the administration dismantled a 20-member scientific review panel specifically charged with setting safe rates for particulate matter in the air.
Even in the teeth of a public health emergency, the Trump administration is allowing poisons to course through the environment. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, Andrew Wheeler, refused to set limits on perchlorate, a toxic chemical that has been linked to fetal brain damage (so much for Trump’s professed concern for the unborn). The chemical is used in rocket fuel, and establishing limits in drinking water has long been opposed by military contractors and the defense department. Public health advocates credibly accuse Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, of using the cover of the pandemic to relieve industry groups of reporting and monitoring requirements under a new “temporary enforcement discretion policy” that went into effect on March 13.
Other attacks on public health include lifting the ban on chlorpyrifos, the most widely-used agricultural pesticide, which has been linked to brain delays in children. Another rollback in progress would limit the ability of communities to challenge pollution permits issued by the EPA. A sobering aggregation compiled this month by the New York Times lists nearly 100 environmental health rules the Trump administration has repealed or relaxed since taking office.
And of course, Trump and Republicans in Congress continue their attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which has given 20 million more Americans access to health insurance. Doctors have voiced deep concerns about people with serious chronic conditions deferring care during the pandemic, not filling prescriptions, or avoiding treatment while their health deteriorates. That is what it’s like every day for people without adequate insurance.
And let’s not forget Trump’s petulant, misinformed threat to withdraw permanently from the World Health Organization, accusing the agency of a pro-China bias. The COVID-19 disease obviously does not respect international boundaries, and fighting it requires a cooperative global response, including learning from the experience of other countries. Beyond the immediate crisis, US funding for WHO supports polio eradication, maternal and child health, and prevention of other infectious diseases worldwide including malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. Withdrawing is a deadly abdication of international leadership.
A saving grace in the administration’s assault on public health has been an independent judiciary, which has in many cases halted or reversed the administration’s actions: restoring the ban on hydrofluorocarbons, for example, or reissuing a rule limiting mercury discharges into municipal sewers. The lawsuits brought by state attorneys general or environmental advocacy groups have been a crucial backstop against Trump’s recklessness. But of course Trump also has the courts in his sights, picking fights and intimidating judges and even jurors whose actions run counter to his agenda.
It is clear this president is hazardous to our health. But we also need to check the vital signs on our democracy.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.