October 25, 2007 The Pump Handle 1Comment

Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified on Tuesday at the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works hearing “Examining the Human Health Impacts of Global Warming.” Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Gerberding’s written testimony had been severely edited by the White House, which chopped it from 14 pages to 4. Gerberding and spokespersons from the White House and CDC then insisted that everything was fine – the editing process was normal, Gerberding had been able to communicate what she needed to, etc. But a look at the original draft of Gerberding’s testimony, supplied to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Physicians for Social Responsibility, shows that the two versions paint very different pictures.

There are two main components to the original testimony: 1) an explanation of the health effects we can expect in the U.S. as climate change progresses, and 2) an overview of the CDC expertise and programs that can help anticipate and respond to those effects. The White House evidently decided that the first of those two components wasn’t necessary.

Here’s one of the important statements that got edited out:

CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern.

In fact, the word “serious” doesn’t even appear in the testimony Gerberding submitted – nor does the word “severe,” which she used five times in the original version. Overall, the edited testimony lacks the sense of urgency that the original version conveys. In the first section of her original testimony, Gerberding is specific about the problems we can expect, including more ground-level ozone; more ragweed and poison ivy allergens; drinking water contaminated with Cryptosporidium and Giardia; changing patterns of Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and hantavirus; more frequent and severe heat waves in midwestern and northeastern cities; and increased frequency, severity, distribution, and duration of forest fires on the west coast. In the second section of her original testimony, Gerberding is specific about the CDC programs instead. She’s doing what so many of us learned to do in Writing 101: get your reader to care about the problem, and then explain what needs to be done.

The White House (evidently no fan of compelling writing) stripped out the urgency, severity, and attention-grabbing details – including details about who is at greatest risk. Here’s some of what was excised:

As with other environmental hazards, members of certain ethnic and racial minority groups will likely be disproportionately affected. For example, in low-lying coastal communities facing increasingly frequent and severe extreme precipitation events, there could be increased injuries, outbreaks of diarrheal disease, and harmful algal blooms; saltwater may intrude into freshwater tables and infrastructure is likely to be damaged by severe storms, hampering economic recovery. In certain Southern coastal communities with little economic reserve, declining industry, difficulty accessing health care, and a greater underlying burden of disease, these stressors could be overwhelming. Similarly, in an urban area with increasingly frequent and severe heat waves, certain groups are expected to be more affected: the home-bound, elderly, poor, athletes, and minority and migrant populations, and populations that live in areas with less green space and with fewer centrally air-conditioned buildings are all more vulnerable to heat stress.

Some populations of Americans are more vulnerable to the health effects of climate change than others. Children are at greater risk of worsening asthma, allergies, and certain infectious diseases, and the elderly are at higher risk for health effects due to heat waves, extreme weather events, and exacerbations of chronic disease. In addition, people of lower socioeconomic status are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups suffer particularly from air pollution as well as inadequate health care access, while athletes and those who work outdoors are more at risk from air pollution, heat, and certain infectious diseases.

Instead, the edited version tells us that modeling and forecasting “can help predict and respond to the most pressing health vulnerabilities at the state and local level” and that the CDC participated in the development of an Excessive Heat Events Guidebook, which can assist local governments in developing Heat Response Plans that “identify local populations at increased high risk for heat-related illness and death and determine which strategies will be used to reach them during heat emergencies.”

As Senator Barbara Boxer stated in a letter to the White House, “The public has a right to all of the facts about global warming and the threat it poses to their families and communities.” We have to know how urgent and severe the situation is if we’re going to respond appropriately.

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