Toussaint column: Political participation an essential ingredient in your healthy diet
Recently, I started eating a mostly-vegetarian diet for my health.
We Americans invest billions in diets, vitamins and gyms. Ironically, many of the things we obsess about — like gluten or choosing pilates versus ellipticals — have far less impact on our health than things we never think about. Things like shoes, air and satellites.
Over the past century, as Americans began to routinely wear shoes, hookworm was nearly eradicated in this country. During the Civil War, hookworm was what made Andersonville prison so deadly, with roughly 59 percent of the barefooted Union soldiers dying during captivity. (Tragically, the World Health Organization has found again hookworm among the poor in America’s deep south.)
Congressionally mandated evaluation of the 1963 Clean Air Act by the EPA found that the act, as amended in 1990, prevents 230,000 premature adult deaths and 280 infant deaths every year, as well as giving us about $2 trillion in annual health savings. I can personally testify to the value of clearing the air. When I moved here from smoggy California, my asthma — a malady that cost $400-plus a month in prescriptions — completely disappeared.
And satellites? During hurricanes, it’s flooding, rather than wind, that causes the most deaths. Since 2014, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has forecast hurricane-driven storm surge using satellites. Back in 1900, the nation’s deadliest-ever hurricane killed 8,000 people in Galveston, but Hurricane Ike unleashed even higher floods there in 2008. While 100 died that time, NOAA’s satellites gave 1 million people enough advance warning to evacuate safely.
The average American’s lifespan has increased by more than 30 years since 1900, and Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), notes that “25 years of this gain have been attributed to public health advances.”
Public health advances gave me more than that. Had I been born a century earlier, I would have died of pneumonia as an infant, rather than being saved by penicillin. I was inoculated for smallpox (which killed 894 Americans in 1900) as well as diptheria (which killed 13,170 in 1920). I endured long enough to get the polio vaccine in 1955 (1,879 Americans died from polio in 1951, the year I was born), but I wasn’t so lucky with measles. It destroyed about half of my hearing when I was 5; measles vaccine wasn’t available until I turned 11.
Having now survived six decades, I owe a debt of gratitude to public health crusaders of the past. I’m paying it forward by advocating a few policies that would improve the health of coming generations.
Let teens sleep in: In 2015, the CDC urged school districts to start the middle and high school day later. In 40 U.S. states, nearly 75 percent of high schools start school by 7:30. That violates teenagers’ biological clocks and leaves them chronically sleep-deprived. Later starts, researchers have found, boost attendance, test scores and grades in math. What’s more, extra sleep saves lives. When Fayette County, Kentucky high schools changed start times from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., teen car crashes dropped by more than 16 percent — double the drop in fatalities Kentucky got by mandating seat belt use in 2008.
Reduce the number of guns: According to the FBI, criminals committed 8,855 gun homicides in 2012 while 258 private citizens registered “justifiable” killings, shooting a bad guy who was committing a crime. That equals a ratio of 1:34. CDC data tallied 20,066 gun suicides that same year, yielding just one self-defense shooting per 78 gun suicides. Analyzing 677 shootings in Philadelphia over a two-year period, Charles Brannas at the University of Pennsylvania found that gun owners were 4.2 times more likely to be shot and killed than unarmed citizens. The data indicate that it makes sense to get guns out of your personal house, even if citizens can’t get gun control out of the U.S. House or Senate.
Fully fund NOAA: Last year, the Trump Administration’s proposed budget would have grounded many of the satellites that warn us of approaching hurricanes. In response to public outcry, the stop-gap funding bill the House passed early this month did include money for NOAA’s satellites. However, Trump’s current budget proposal would still force NOAA to cut 248 forecaster positions that inform the public of threatening conditions. And because of global warming, hurricane severity is increasing.
Speaking of global warming, it turns out that even my diet has public health implications. Researchers in England have forecast that a global switch to plant-based diets could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, while also avoiding climate damage totaling $1.5 trillion.
Here’s a toast (carrot juice, of course) to the political activists who extend the quantity and quality of all our lives.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.