Francis Koster: Is America being naughty or nice?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2020

By Francis Koster

My mom and dad always ended the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period exhausted.

They took six kids and grandma on a holiday schedule filled with choir rehearsal, church events, pancake breakfasts and fundraisers. There were serious moments — as kids we were asked if we had been naughty or nice, and by the time we entered high school, we were reminded of our obligation to become a role model for others. We were asked, “Are you walking your talk?”

I have been thinking about this. Are we, as a country, being naughty or nice? Does our behavior reflect what we proclaim are our values? I do not think so.

Our life expectancy has been falling, particularly among the poor, even before the COVID epidemic. Many years of failure to adapt to scientific findings is causing great pain and suffering.

• Areas with high air pollution have infection and death rates much higher than areas with cleaner air. Last week, the White House rejected pleas from public health officials to tighten air pollution regulations. Multiple studies have shown that each dollar invested in air pollution control reduces healthcare costs between $30 and $90.

• Chemical pollution in our drinking water is rising, but government efforts to halt it are being cut. A study done by the Environmental Working Group (note that this is not a governmental agency) did a massive study and found over 260 contaminants in public drinking water. Because of lack of government funding, 141 of these chemicals have no safety standards in place, and there is no ability to hold either the polluters or the water supply operators responsible. The other 119 chemicals had safety standards, but little enforcement.

• Obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and almost half of all adult Americans are obese. For decades, it has contributed to the deaths of more Americans every year than COVID-19 has so far in 2020. Our government subsidizes growing sugar- and corn-based sweeteners. Efforts to shift those subsidies to supporting growing more fruits and vegetables cannot get through Congress.

The average American eats or drinks about a credit card’s worth of tiny plastic particles a week!

The companies that make plastic are not required to make sure it decays in a safe and harmless way. Instead, current national law allows them to make unlimited amounts of this dangerous invisible contaminant, take their profit and walk away from the damage it causes. The World Health Organization has a program to try to solve this plastics problem, but in April 2020 the White House announced America was quitting the organization.

• Climate-changing gases are threatening the health and safety of people all over the world.

It is well recognized that leaking methane gas from oil and gas production facilities and pipelines is a major contributor to this — over 140 times worse over its 12 year life than the often discussed carbon dioxide. Over the past four years, American political appointees canceled existing requirements that all methane leaking be reduced, and removed a requirement that leaks be monitored and reported.

Calling us naughty does not come close to describing this kind of behavior. We are not walking our talk, but we could at our local level and become role models for others to look up to.

To monitor air pollution, schools or clubs could join existing citizen science-operated monitoring networks like Clean Air Carolina.

We could ask that our local water supply be tested not just for what the federal regulations call for but for other known threats. Or we could ask the local higher education institutions’ science classes to do it. To tackle the obesity problem, we can put a local sales tax on high sugar containing foods like Philadelphia did, which reduced the frequency of adult soda consumption by 31%. Your county could adopt a regulation like Suffolk County on Long Island, New York, did, which placed a 5-cent fee on customers for every disposable bag used. Grocery stores reported up to an 80% decline in plastic bag use.

We could require area natural gas companies to publish a monthly map showing the results of methane leak inspections outside homes or ask scout troops to fly methane-detecting drones to alert us to leaks under our city streets.

Let’s have a happier new year for years to come.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.