Wilting in the summer’s heat: Food safety, water hygiene, and officials’ ethics

arches-300x263Americans hoping for relaxed, healthful summer days, instead may be getting steady and unwelcome reminders that, despite much publicized claims about regulators’ protective programs, the safeguarding of the nation’s food and water supplies remains a flawed work in progress.

The list only keeps growing of well-known commercial brands affected by tainted food claims, now including:

Forbes Magazine says of cyclosporiasis:

[It] is caused by Cyclospora cayetanensis, a single-celled protozoa most commonly transmitted on produce contaminated with human fecal matter, particularly from tropical or subtropical regions where the parasite is native. According to the Food and Drug Administration, symptoms of cyclosporiasis include severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, bloating, nausea, and fatigue. Without treatment, the infection can last from as little as a few days to more than a month. Cyclosporiosis is usually not life threatening.

As for salmonella, federal officials say they estimate that:

[It] causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths in the United States every year. Food is the source for about 1 million of these illnesses. Most persons infected develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.

The CDC says that in 2016, it “monitored between 21 and 57 potential food poisoning or related clusters each week and investigated more than 200 multistate clusters. These investigations led to the identification of confirmed or suspected vehicles of transmission and the recalls of a variety of foods including packaged saladsmeal replacement productsfrozen vegetables, and flour.”

The agency estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. The CDC already in 2018 has tracked two sizable foodborne outbreaks, involving the recall of more than 200 million eggs tied to salmonella infections in nine states and romaine lettuce implicated in dozens of E. coli illnesses in 16 states.

Summer is a peak season for foodborne illnesses, as outdoor eating and higher temperatures create challenges for hygienic food handling and storage. Federal officials say they typically handle 20 major incidents annually. There has been growing concern that food-borne outbreaks may become bigger as corporate behemoths control ever more of the global supply chains.

Federal regulators had vowed to reduced the number, scope, and duration of tainted food cases, especially under the much publicized Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in 2011 and promoted as a major federal effort to safeguard what we eat. Scott Gottlieb, the federal Food and Drug Administration chief, has said repeatedly that a top priority for his agency is protecting Americans’ foods, though watchdogs have rebuked the FDA for dawdling on pulling contaminated products from grocery shelves.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I know it may be optimal for them, and for most of us, to stay healthy, so we simply keep away from doctors and hospitals. It’s our collective nightmare to take every precaution to stay well, only to be felled by illnesses borne by common, every day foods.

Clean water problems

It may be an equal torment, though, to be sickened by and to struggle with supplies of clean water. Tens of thousands of residents of the nation’s capital got experience with this after crews found after a mechanical problem in the DC Water agency’s pumps had reduced pipe pressures sufficiently to raise concerns that bacteria might contaminate the district system. Residents were told to boil drinking water, just to be safe. The water agency said the situation might take up to 48 hours to resolve, and, meantime, The Washington Post reported that:

DC officials said they have closed pools and spray parks located in the impacted areas. Warnings were put up at libraries not to drink from fountains. Water bottles were sent to summer schools and camp sites, officials said. DC Water’s website was having trouble handling the load of inquiries early Friday morning. At one point Friday morning, as the warning extended into parts of downtown Washington and Georgetown, the impact on area businesses was varied. Sidwell Friends closed its campus at noon Friday because of the water issue.

To be fair, pressure problems, pipe breaks, and potential bacterial contamination of water supplies is not unique, and they recently have plagued utility customers in suburban Detroit and in Owensboro, Ky. Denver residents woke to a weekend front-page story that water drawn from wells and served to tens of thousands of metropolitan area customers may be tainted with cancer-causing chemicals.

If the continuing catastrophe in Flint, Mich., hadn’t already jostled Americans into thinking hard about how much still needs to be done to protect and improve the nation’s water supplies, critics have warned for months now that Scott Pruitt, the recently ousted head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, constituted a one-man anti-green threat. They have assailed his moves, supported by the Republican-controlled Congress, to roll back clean water regulations and block EPA studies opposed by corporate and big-money interests.

Pruitt may be gone but voters may well ask if his successors and the EPA have their interests, especially their health and well-being in mind as they conduct the people’s business. The Trump administration is compiling a poor record on its top officials’ ethics practices, with Pruitt raising a major ruckus with complaints about his conflicts of interest and spending issues before he was forced to resign.

Meantime, federal watchdogs have finished reviewing the scandalous till-tapping of Tom Price, a physician and Trump’s former head of the US Health and Human Services agency. Auditors have said Price should pay Uncle Sam back almost $350,000 in inappropriate travel costs for himself and his wife on 21 of 22 scrutinized charter and military flights he took on purported official business.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, investigators “estimated that the government spent nearly $1.2 million on Price’s travel during his seven months in office. That included more than $700,000 in military flights on two foreign and two domestic trips, as well as more than $480,000 for various domestic trips by private chartered aircraft.”

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