WATERVILLE — In this time of unprecedented crisis, the call by some to protect the economy over the health of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 is outrageous. As we keep an eye on case fatality rates, shortages of masks and ventilators and who among our friends and family is being stricken, the notion that it’s the stock market that matters most is immoral at worst and ineffective at best.

Sadly, the U.S. government protects businesses over public health all the time, but perhaps in the glaring light of this crisis, we can rethink this perverse trade-off and create innovative strategies to protect public health and our economy. But public health must always come first.

Most regulatory actions in the U.S. require that we weigh the costs, largely to industries, of restricting a hazardous activity or substance against the benefits, largely to the public, of preventing injury, disease and death. The government, instead of doing all it can to minimize hazards to our health, asks how much death and disease is “acceptable” and regulates only to that level.

This means that Americans get sick and die in order to preserve the status quo, even when activities that power our economy are hazardous to human health. Unfettered by significant regulations, petrochemical companies poison us with pesticides in our food and water supplies and toxic chemicals in our consumer products. Fossil fuel and factory workers are highly exposed to innumerable toxic substances as they sacrifice their health to keep the wheels of these polluting industries turning. Failure of the U.S. government to adequately regulate the fracking industry, where wastewater contaminants pollute our air, soil and water, leads to toxic exposures that cause adverse pregnancy outcomes, respiratory diseases and cancer clusters. Not phasing out toxic organophosphate pesticides such as chlorpyrifos means more children will have serious neurological deficits. In effect, our government considers it acceptable for people to die or children to have reduced cognitive function to protect companies’ bottom line, without asking if these hazards are really necessary or if we could find less hazardous ways to do business.

Many toxic substances, some regulated and others not, have an unseen connection to COVID-19. Exposures to air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and small particulate matter in the air damage our upper and lower respiratory tracts and increase the risk of contracting and dying from respiratory disorders like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Having asthma or COPD increases our vulnerability to coronavirus infection, development of COVID-19 and death.

Many other hazardous substances also cause respiratory illnesses and may put people at higher risk of COVID-19, including certain pesticides, plastics chemicals, heavy metals and industrial chemicals that are widespread environmental contaminants. And that’s just respiratory harm; exposures to toxic substances are linked to other chronic diseases that also make people vulnerable to COVID-19.

I have been an environmental health advocate in the state of Maine for many years, and have worked alongside public health experts, community organizers and legislators to enact measures that use a precautionary approach to protecting the public’s health. Instead of asking how much harm is acceptable, we ask how much harm we can prevent. And where our health is threatened, we consider the most vulnerable among us, those who suffer the most: children, the elderly, those with underlying illnesses and the politically, economically and socially marginalized groups who, regardless of health status, lack access to our health system and may be disproportionately exposed to harm.

The current coronavirus crisis is first and foremost about public health, and our No. 1 priority must be protecting the health of everyone. As the experts keep saying, this means widespread testing for the virus, near-universal distancing behaviors and increased support for medical, public health and emergency response workers on the front lines. Now and in the future, we need to remain vigilant and guard against decisions that ignore public health. Optimistically, we might begin to envision a new era where our priorities shift for good toward the well-being of all.


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