BY THEA BURKE ’20
The U.S. government shutdown had many clear implications for various federal departments, employees and policies. But less obvious implications for the public and environmental health of the nation are also rife. Speaking to CNN, Professor Art Caplan of NYU Langone Health said that though he was not “worried much about the public health impact [of the shutdown], every day that passes presents a new threat that something will happen that could have been prevented if the government was functioning at full throttle.” Even though the shutdown may have posed a potentially insignificant risk to public health, it is important to understand which agencies do not function at full capacity when the government is closed.
According to NPR, even in the case of a shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will still continue any work that is “critical to public health and safety.” This includes responding to emergency outbreaks of foodborne illness or disease, screening food and drug imports, approval of medical devices and drugs (if fees have been prepaid) and continuing the manufacturing and distribution of “user-fee funded” services such as the tobacco industry. But, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “routine regulatory and compliance work for medical products, animal drugs and most foods will be paused”, as well as “routine inspections of facilities and all work related to cosmetics and nutrition.”
That said, food facilities that do not process meat are only inspected every few years, according to NPR. Therefore, not all facilities missed their required inspections. Companies, such as Costco, that have the money to do so hire a private company to inspect food products, which is “sometimes even tougher than the government’s program.” But, these private companies are not always 100 percent competent, given that “private inspectors don’t have an incentive to look too hard for problems because the food companies themselves pay for these certifications.” This has led to outbreaks of diseases such as listeria, which according to Vox occurred in 2011 after a private company failed to thoroughly inspect the facilities of a local farm, leading to the deaths of 25 people.
According to Vox, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stopped inspections at 1,200 sites, including hazardous waste sites, during the shutdown. According to the EPA’s contingency plan, which can be found on their government website, activities that are authorized by law or can be categorized in the Americans with Disabilities Act as an “emergency exception” will continue in the case of a shutdown. These include issues of national and homeland security, imminent public health issues, emergency and disaster assistance, and “protection of federal lands, buildings, equipment, research property, and other property owned by the United States.”
a time of government shutdown are those that are “funded with unexpired appropriations where carryover funds remain unobligated or programs funded from sources other than appropriations, such as fees and payments that are available for obligation.” This means that nonessential activities, which have been paid for by either an obligation, a public debt “whose principal and interest is unconditionally guaranteed by the United States Government,” according to the U.S. Legal website, or an appropriation, “a legislative act authorizing the expenditure of a designated amount of public funds for a specific purpose.” According to E&E News, an environmental news source, personnel who work for the EPA are considered to be “excepted,” which means they are essential in “protecting life and property.” This means that these workers will come to work without being paid.
Though the most recent shutdown has ended, it has only done so conditionally; if Congress does not reach a resolution on border security by Feb. 15, the federal government will close once more. While the government can seem like a distant operating power, it is important to understand the ways in which the effects of a shutdown can reach the every day lives of American citizens, especially with the potential of another looming so close in the future.