Safety Shutdown

by Sean Philpott, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Unless a miracle happens, by the time this commentary airs on Northeast Public Radio the US federal government will enter its tenth day of shutdown. Nearly 800,000 workers will remain furloughed, important social service and educational programs will remain unfunded, national parks and monuments will remain closed, and the National Zoo’s panda cam will remain offline.

Some already have been directly affected by the shutdown — the furloughed workers, the disadvantaged children whose Head Start programs were forced to close due to a lack of funds, the grieving widows of fallen soldiers whose death benefits were delayed, and the desperate cancer patients whose enrollment in NIH-run clinical trials has been postponed. For most of us, however, the impact of the shutdown has been fairly minimal. Our mail is still being delivered, our courts of law are still open and our prisons are still full, our police and firemen remain on duty, and our social security checks continue to arrive.

For the average American then, all is currently okay in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And it will stay that way, so long as you don’t eat anything, drink anything, take any new medications, or fly anywhere. Unbeknownst to many, the very safety of the public is at risk during the shutdown.Consider the issue of food safety. Locally produced meat, poultry and seafood should remain safe, no matter the length of the shutdown. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to inspect domestic meat and poultry plants. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) domestic seafood inspection program is also up and running.

But the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for monitoring the remaining 80% of domestic food production, as well as ensuring the safety of all food imports (including meat and seafood), has been largely shuttered. Given that 10% of the beef, 20% of the vegetables, 50% of the fruit and 90% of the seafood eaten by Americans comes from overseas, that’s a lot of uninspected food. So be sure to wash your fruits and vegetables carefully in the coming weeks.

Moreover, if an outbreak of food-borne illness should happen, the government response is likely to be tepid. When such outbreaks occur — particularly those that cross state lines, such as the current outbreak of Salmonella that has sickened over 300 people in 18 states — the FDA, USDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work with local and state health agencies to trace the source of the contamination and stop any further cases of illness. For the most part, that’s no longer happening.

In fact, the government shutdown poses a myriad of threats to the health and safety of all Americans. Not only is the CDC no longer actively investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness, it has also suspended its flu surveillance and vaccination program. The emergence of a new strain of influenza — such as the H1N1 strain that caused a global pandemic in 2009 — could go largely unnoticed until it is too late to prevent its deadly spread.

Similarly, not only have food inspections stopped at the FDA, so have drug approval and safety inspections. New drugs to treat deadly diseases like hepatitis C may be delayed, and unsafe drugs that pose a danger to US consumers may remain on the market. Thousands of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees have also been furloughed, including air safety inspectors. As a result, in the past week safety inspections of planes and pilots have largely ceased. Most of the staff of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have also been sent home. They are no longer conducting workplace safety inspections, except in cases where there is “a high risk of death or serious physical harm”.

The only Americans who remain safe during this government shutdown are the politicians themselves, most of who are comfortably ensconced in gerrymandered districts that ensure continued re-election despite universal disgust with their partisan hijinks. The rest of us are at risk, whether we know it or not. And it seems that is little that we can do to combat the continued political posturing that prevents our Congressmen from working together to address our nation’s pressing needs … at least, that is, until the 2014 midterm elections.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on October 10, 2013. It is also available on the WAMC website. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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