SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: George W. Bush may be hazardous to your health. Prolonged exposure may lead to developmental disorders, sexually transmitted disease, and cancer.
Over the past several months, the White House has pushed politics and personal ideology over science in the structuring of public health policy. As a result, your health is at risk, and a simple warning label is not going to be enough to protect you.
In early September, the administration began to alter significantly the makeup of the scientific advisory committees that counsel the Department of Health and Human services. These committees have traditionally been composed of scientists and medical professionals whose evaluation of scientific data helps determine the health and environmental policies that affect all Americans. The Bush administration has used its clout to eliminate or severely restructure committees whose scientists do not share the views of the president and his advisors. Consequently, qualified candidates are being replaced by individuals with minimal scientific backgrounds and clear conflicts of interest.
For example, the administration is planning to appoint Dr. W. David Hager to head a Food and Drug Administration panel on women’s health policy. The doctor, described as “scantily credentialed” by Time Magazine, is known for his refusal to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women and for his contention that Bible reading is an effective treatment for PMS. He will be in charge of, among other studies, a review of hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women.
The scope of two environmental committees will also be dramatically altered by changes in their membership. Several members of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning are slated to be replaced by individuals with ties to the lead industry. One candidate in particular is known for his opinion that current lead guidelines are too stringent and has suggested that children can tolerate lead levels as high as 10 times the present recommendation. Similarly, a committee that examines the effect of pesticides on public health will see 15 of its 18 members replaced by chemical industry consultants — one of whom helped defend Pacific Gas and Electric against Erin Brokovich.
The ideological shift seen in these environmental committees is echoed by the administration’s own environmental policy. Bush has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of global warming and endorsed the omission of this issue from a recent Environmental Protection Agency report on air pollution. Moreover, the administration will cut $500 million from water quality programs in 2003. These programs are already suffering from eased restrictions on the acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic has been linked to birth defects and several forms of cancer, prompting a senior Natural Resource Defense Council official to state that the Bush’s policy is “a distressing, unscientific, and illegal threat to the health of millions of Americans.”
Aside from its tampering with advisory committees and environmental policy, the administration has also begun to censor scientific information that it considers too “politically charged” for public consumption. Several documents have been removed from the Web sites of the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among these were a study that found that abortions do not increase the risk of breast cancer and a report supporting the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of HIV.
Further evidence of scientific censorship is seen in the government’s new limits on the publication of research that it deems “sensitive but unclassified.” According to The New York Times, “thousands of reports” falling under this category have already been removed from the public domain. Other reports, like a recent study on the use of viral vaccines in disease prevention, have also come under heavy criticism because viruses can be used as bio-warfare agents. Despite this criticism, scientists argue that the benefits of publishing such research greatly outweigh the risks. Scientists are also concerned that the vagueness of the phrase “sensitive but unclassified” will be used by the administration to suppress the publication of research it finds morally or politically objectionable.
While the political leanings of each presidential administration will no doubt affect public policy, the manipulation of scientific input and output by the Bush administration is unprecedented in its severity and scope. In order to best serve American citizens, science must be as free as possible from the influence of politics and ideology. Many issues in this country are already highly politicized. Your health shouldn’t be one of them.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.