Make America Great Again?

Somewhere during the 2016 election night I read that voters wanted to turn back the clock to the days when they imagined our country was great. Greater than they consider it to be today; a 1950’s America. You know, the pre-Civil Rights America when a woman’s place was in the kitchen and the bedroom. The America where surviving childhood leukemia was a rare event; where occupational deaths were relatively common and smog killed.

I wish I could send them all back in a time machine to 1951, say, when going to work was far riskier than today. Sixteen thousand workers died on the job in 1951 according to an article in EHS a magazine for occupational health and safety. “Almost all,” they write, “were attributed to traumatic injuries from falls, electrocution and machine hazards.” Ah, those were the days when worker safety was, for management, a non-issue unless, recalls Industrial hygienist Louis S. Beliczky, as quoted by EHS, “unless people saw the blood drip.” But by 2007 the number of deaths was less than half that number. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1933 and 1997 worker death rates declined by 90%. But who needs regulation and occupational health sciences? Let’s roll back the clock.


Sidney Farber Image: Wikipedia

Perhaps they want to return to the days before medical science could stave off cancers like childhood leukemia. Those of us in our fifties or older probably all can name at least one kid we grew up with who died of leukemia. Today my kids have never heard of the disease. Yes, it’s still around but for most kids it’s no longer the death sentence it once was. Medical science including projects like the human genome project – funded with billions of American tax-dollars in addition to other funds — is providing technologies and insights into therapies that can keep some cancers at bay indefinitely. But heck, who wants to pay taxes let alone waste them on scientific projects that may or may not help us directly. Or worse yet – help someone else.

Let’s not even get into vaccination. What a waste of American’s hard earned money.

And then there are the environmental regulations. Remember that before Nixon created the EPA back in the 1970s, there was enough death and destruction caused by industrial age chemicals to give naturalist and writer Rachel Carson, plenty to write about. Just the other day while talking with some seventh graders about toxicology – I mentioned DDT. A chemical they’d never heard of. Nor had they, growing up in a time when bald eagles soar overhead, known a time when eagles and other hawkish birds were at risk of dying out. By the time Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, not only were birds dying, but kids were playing on the lawns of their new homes built in a little development in Niagara Falls, New York called Love Canal.


Love Canal Protest Image: Wikipedia

They didn’t know that The Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corporation had buried over twenty thousand tons of chemical waste creating a toxic ooze that eventually burbled up in basements and yards of those kids. Burying toxic waste was a scenario played out over and over again in the pre-EPA days. Consider the solvents dumped in and around Woburn, Massachusetts – which leached into drinking water wells. Or Monsanto’s release of PCBs in Anniston, Alabama. Four decades of PCBs down the drain leaving residents with blood levels of PCBs over two dozen times more than the National average.

And if factories weren’t dumping toxic waste down the drain then they were sending it up the stack. You want to go back to the 1950s? How about 1948 when toxic smog a combination of hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide released by the local steel industry killed twenty residents of Donora, PA and sickened thousands. Dozens more died within a month.

We’ve become a leader in environmental health and medical research thanks to federal support for the sciences. Make America Great? We can, by not forgetting where we were and how far we’ve come.


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