Federal Agencies Pummel Public Health
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Corruption and incompetence in federal bureaucracies are enough to make your blood run thin.
In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admitted that it had allowed into the country tainted, reportedly untested heparin. Distributed by Illinois-based Baxter International, the blood thinner was injected into thousands of vulnerable patients and was linked to adverse effects in more than 800 people, as well as 19 deaths. Given the flawed reporting system, the actual toll is unknowable. But it was preventable.
Baxter imported much of the 35 million vials of heparin it sold last year in the United States from Changzhou SPL. The Chinese company included crude heparin squeezed from the intestines of slaughtered pigs processed in filthy kitchen factories that would make a backwoods meth lab look like an Intel clean room.
The FDA never inspected SPL or most of the 3,249 firms on its list of approved importers, and never tracked the supply chain.
Funding for inspections is down nearly 30 percent under President Bush, according to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the appropriations panel responsible for FDA funding. At the current rate, the FDA would need more than 13 years to cover all the approved foreign firms. Meanwhile the administration panders to Big Pharma by banning the importation of high-quality, low-priced drugs manufactured in Canada.
Clearly, the current FDA head, Andrew von Eschenbach -- an old friend of Bush -- is doing a heck of a job.
Federal agencies -- such as the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- are hobbled by ineptitude and in thrall to political and corporate interests.
FEMA, the poster child for criminal negligence, has sat for two years on hard evidence that trailers warehousing Hurricane Katrina victims were exposing residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde, linked to cancer and lung disease.
In early 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) excoriated FEMA's leadership for failure "to understand and address the public health implications" of exposure to the toxin. A year later, the agency that brought us duct tape to counter terrorist attacks took action: It advised trailer residents simply to air out their homes. (David Paulison, author of the duct tape strategy, now heads FEMA.)
As of Feb. 1, approximately 38,297 Katrina households were still living in toxic trailers. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study pushed FEMA to acknowledge the danger and warn residents.
Part of the problem with the federal bureaucracies is that their areas of authority can overlap, conflict or leave gaps. While no agency has authority over formaldehyde levels in private homes, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits exposure to 0.75 parts per million (ppm) for an eight-hour day. Katrina victims breathed up to .59 ppm for years at a time, according to the CDC, and levels were likely far higher when the trailers were new and the weather was warm.
As for the USDA, the department is slower on its feet than the downer cows dragged through its meat inspections system. An animal rights group -- not USDA investigators -- documented the gruesome sight of dying and diseased cows, riding forklifts to slaughter. The news prompted the February recall of 143 million pounds of beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. By the time the USDA acted, much of the beef had already been served in school lunches.
In a separate incident in 2007, almost 12 weeks passed between the first illness linked to E. coli contamination and the USDA's recall of 21.7 million pounds of Topps Meat hamburger.
Conflicts of interest, cronyism, poor leadership and dispirited staffs have compromised our federal bureaucracies. Underfunding is also a problem, but "funds alone cannot fix an agency that routinely fails at its most basic responsibilities," said DeLauro at a February congressional hearing.
The system intended to protect the public is more tainted than backroom heparin, more toxic than FEMA trailers and more suspect than downer cows.
When Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), head of the subcommittee that oversees the FDA, requested a briefing on heparin, the FDA said it was too busy. "Maybe it's time that we replace the leadership at the FDA," Stupak said.
Maybe that's not enough. Maybe Congress should exercise oversight and the new president should invest the political and financial capital necessary to revamp the structure, priorities and loyalties of the country's failed bureaucracies.