Who Suffers from a Shutdown?

Hint: It’s Not Politicians

The longest government shutdown in American history is over—at least for the next three weeks. While this comes as a relief to some 800,000 furloughed federal workers headed back to work this week, the Congressional Budget Office says the shutdown cost the U.S. economy an unrecoverable $3 billion. For many, the ripple effects of this shutdown will continue to be felt.

Who suffers from a shutdown? Our businesses and economy certainly suffer, putting strain on the average American’s earnings. But a shutdown doesn’t just harm our pockets—it harms our health and communities.        

Government shutdown hurts public health

One of the federal agencies impacted by this shutdown was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As the New York Times reported at the beginning of the month, the EPA “furloughed most of its roughly 600 pollution inspectors and other workers who monitor compliance with environmental laws. Those scientists, engineers and analysts are responsible for detecting violations that endanger human health…” Indeed, the environmental laws we have in place are there for very good reason. Perhaps due to the success of the EPA people do not recall what life was like before the agency was formed to administer federal environmental regulations. Perhaps people do not remember when factories dumped waste directly into waterways, children endured smog that impacted their respiratory health and lifespan, neighborhoods were built on top of toxic waste dumps, and rivers literally burned. If that America is hard to imagine, take a look at the 15,000 pictures captured by freelance photographers for a Documerica Project in the early 1970s.

Today’s America stands in stark contrast to 1970s America, thanks in large part to environmental regulations that protect public health and the environment. For example, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act have helped ensure that our families have access to clean, safe drinking water and healthy waterways. What’s more, regulatory programs like the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) collect scientifically valid data on constituents of emerging concern (CECs) in drinking water. The data collected regarding the exposure and occurrence of these CECs is used to help improve regulatory decisions that affect public health. If it had not been for UCMR, for example, we would still be unaware of the extent to which dangerous PFAS compounds are present in drinking water across the US.  

Testing for the current round of UCMR constituents is one of the many regulatory processes caught in the ripple effects of this shutdown. Without funding from the EPA, small systems (community water systems and non-transient non-community water systems serving between 25 – 10,000 people) selected to participate in UCMR4 were unable to collect and send samples for analysis. Large systems (serving more than 10,000 people) who pay for their own testing were not affected in this way, however, they likely experienced data submission issues as EPA staff were not available to review data or assist with data upload challenges. Even as the EPA returns to work, we have yet to fully understand the consequences this shutdown may have had on this important regulatory program that informs public health.          

The interruption of the UCMR4 program is just one example of the many environmental monitoring activities affected by this shutdown. It goes without saying that safe water, air, and food are fundamental to human survival, and the safety of these precious resources simply cannot be ensured if we are not regularly monitoring and testing our environment. The evidence that environmental laws and regulations have vastly improved quality of life for Americans is incontrovertible, so when regulatory agencies are unable to monitor pollutants and enforce protocols it means that our quality of life is at risk. So, who suffers from a shutdown? We all do.