Monday, July 15, 2019

Op-Ed: Is This What We Expect From Our Government?

By Dr. Richard Kaplan

I recently got an email from Gov. Wolf extolling the virtues of the new PA budget; he notes that the budget “makes investments without raising taxes one cent.”  
His list of the programs fails to mention the environment nor does he mention the inclusion of the Legislature’s ban on any local actions to tax and/or ban plastic bags. 
 Clearly, what the Legislature and the Governor consider to be worthwhile investments does not include the environment. 
The budget, again!!, as well as Governor Wolf’s note have utter disregard for the state of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the agency authorized to maintain and improve the environment.
As has been pointed out a number of times (the latest by Rep. Vitali in the “PA Environment Digest Blog” for July 9), the DEP has been chronically and gravely underfunded for over a decade during which time its staff is down by about 30 percent.
I think about the state of the environment in analogy to a person’s health.  
Not only should one go to a real doctor, not a late-night television quack, but one should also follow the doctor’s orders both to prevent illness and to treat illness when it comes along.  
If one wants to ignore a doctor’s advice (this can be considered an exercise of freedom albeit a stupid act of freedom), that may be okay for illnesses that are not communicable. That is those illnesses whose impact on the community is minimal. 
Yet, even so, the toll a chronic illness can take on the affected person’s family and loved ones should make any person want to take the appropriate steps of care.
The problem with environmental illnesses is that they are all communicable.  
Today’s release of CO2 [carbon dioxide] by a coal-fired power plant is not going to only affect the immediate vicinity of the plant.  CO2, like all air pollutants, follows physical laws of matter and distributes throughout the air. And this infection is not acute; CO2 remains in the air as do untreated bacterial infections in one’s skin, one’s bloodstream. 
In so many words, air pollution, water pollution, toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater are communicable chronic diseases of the environment that make people sick.
A number of elected officials in Pennsylvania seem to want to play environmental doctor.  Instead of adequately funding the DEP, such representatives want to hamstring these environmental doctors-- those who prescribe prevention and treatment and actually have education/training in these fields.
Why interfere with preventive medicine and amelioration for the environment?  
It may depend upon how some people feel about risk and how much treatments cost. Pretending that one doesn’t have cancer is analogous to pretending we don’t have the illness of global climate change.  
When one wants to hope, by burying realization and understanding, that the disease will just go away, most of the time this ends up with dire consequences-- some of which could have been treated/prevented.  
Treatments are often expensive, but our Legislature, hiding behind the credo of no more taxes, just pretends there is no problem.  Since there is no problem, then we don’t have to pay for treatment.  
Environmental data, like blood tests and MRIs, are based in facts, not in let’s-pretend.  And repeating the let’s-pretend enough times creates a pseudo-reality all its own. Voilà, no new taxes.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of facts.
Forty percent of streams and lakes in Pennsylvania do not meet their water quality criteria. 
Asthma rates in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are four times the State average.  
Warming due to fossil fuel emissions has caused over a 70 percent increase in severe storms in the Northeast USA.  
Tropical diseases such as dengue and West Nile Virus have established themselves in Pennsylvania through the agency of their vectors, the creatures that carry them, such as mosquitoes and ticks-- eight people died of West Nile Virus in 2018 in the Commonwealth. 
Global carbon dioxide levels and global temperature have been steadily rising—a trend—over the last century or so.  
Studies of environmental diseases have shown, repeatedly, that emissions from burning—ozone and particulate matter—are destructive to human health.  
Lead is so dangerous to children that even our Legislature recognizes it as so. Yet, I still don’t see the needed crusade for eliminating it from drinking water for residences and schools.
There is only one vector for the environmental illnesses we suffer.  It is humanity.  
And our Legislature refuses to recognize this in any way that requires actual, enhanced outlays to treat the illnesses and to prevent further spreading of these illnesses.  
Human medicine costs money; better cures often cost more.  Or we could just pretend we’re all healthy while morbidity and mortality from environmental illness increases.  
No new taxes is the continuing motto of the Pennsylvania Government, but environmental illnesses spread and deepen.  
Investment in the health of Pennsylvania should be money well spent.

Dr. Richard Kaplan is an Adjunct Professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, a volunteer for PennEnvironment and a retired pharmaceutical environmental executive; from Fort Washington, he can be contacted by email at
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