Public Health Declined During the Trump Era, New Report Finds

The Trump administration’s policies on health insurance, environmental protections, food security, immigration, reproductive rights, and racial inequality have all negatively impacted the country’s public health, a new report co-authored by Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, found.

“Every one of these policy changes that was initiated by the Trump administration has a negative impact on human health,” Landrigan, BC ’63, said. “Whether it’s cutting back health insurance, whether it’s increasing air pollution, whether it’s pulling back safeguards to keep workers from getting killed on the job—all of them have impacts on health.” 

The report, which compared the United States’ life expectancy and death rates by age group to that of other G7 nations, said that in 2018 alone, 461,000 American lives were lost unnecessarily. 

More recently, over 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States also could have been avoided, according to the report, which was titled “Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era” and was published last week in The Lancet

Landrigan worked with Samantha Fisher, a senior data analyst at the BC Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, and two other scientists to research and report on the specific environmental and occupational hazard rollbacks enacted during Trump’s presidency. 

The team wrote that Trump’s administration removed dozens of different environmental protections and relaxed regulations for workers in mining. 

“Between 2016 and 2019, the annual number of environmentally and occupationally related deaths increased by more than 22,000, reversing 15 years of steady progress,” the report said. 

Deaths from black lung and silicosis lung disease have increased for workers breathing in rock and coal dust, as well as on-the-job injuries, Landrigan said. 

He’s also concerned about air pollution and fine particulate matter (PM) 2.5. These tiny particles of pollution can also cause lung disease, as well as heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and more. 

“The greenhouse gases that drive climate change and the fine particles that cause air pollution, both arise from the combustion of fossil fuels,” Landrigan said. “So, anything that Biden can do to wean the United States of America off of fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to renewables is going to be a good thing … by slowing the pace of global warming.” 

The rising levels of PM 2.5 and other environmental toxins mirror reports found in Landrigan’s work with ocean pollution—he released a study on its negative effects this past December that became the scientific backing for the Monaco Declaration, a document that called upon world leaders and global citizens to combat ocean pollution.

In addition to environmental and occupational hazards that might more traditionally explain declines in public health, the new report also names socioeconomic and racial differences as driving factors behind the U. S.’s public health issues. 

The country’s history of white supremacy has entrenched inequalities in housing, education, policing, and more, all of which affect the health of Americans of color, the report said. 

It also blames Trump’s attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for an additional 2.3 million people losing their health insurance, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Any erosion of health protections in a society, any policy that ties health to wealth, is inevitably going to increase disparities in health in the society, for the simple reason that people who can afford to get decent health care will seek it out and people who cannot afford it will do without,” Landrigan said. 

Though the report names Trump and his policies explicitly for denigrating public health, it also goes into detail about the historical and political context of these policies, including the impact of neoliberal politics in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The report also suggests a number of steps that its authors feel are necessary for President Joe Biden and his administration to take in the coming months and years to protect the health of Americans. 

The report applauds the Biden administration for rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement, as well as for investing in social programs and education, reducing the military budget, passing the Green New Deal, and enacting single payer health care. 

Landrigan also said that Biden’s biggest focus should be on preventing health crises by championing nutrition reforms, access to reproductive care, and environmental protections. And, because preventative measures won’t solve everything, Landrigan said Biden needs to focus on providing adequate health care access for all. 

“The only way you can reduce health disparities in a society is make health care accessible to everybody, with few barriers, and have a reasonable environment so that everybody in society, rich or poor, gets to breathe clean air and drink clean water,” Landrigan said. 

Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

February 22, 2021