Oct. 25, 2007 -- Environmental and public health experts overwhelmingly denounced editing by the White House of a federal health agency head's testimony to Congress Tuesday. Significant deletions were made from the testimony, concerning global warming and the potential impact on human health.
The original, unedited testimony presented to Congress by Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and obtained by ABC News was 14 pages long, but the White House Office of Management and Budget edited the final version down to a mere six pages.
Scientists and public health organizations called the move "frustrating," "terrible" and "appalling." The edits essentially deleted all sections that referred to climate change as a public health concern -- including the risks of increased food-borne and waterborne diseases, worsening extreme weather events, worsening air pollution and the effect of heat stress on humans.
"Dr. Gerberding is the lead of the premiere public health agency in the U.S.," said Kim Knowlton, a science fellow on global warming and health at the National Resources Defense Council in New York. "It's shocking that she was not allowed to say in a public discussion some of these vital details.
"One has to wonder why was this is so threatening to the White House."
In response to the controversy that followed, White House press secretary Dana Perino stated that the White House Office of Management and Budget redacted the majority of the information on the basis that the science in the testimony did not match the science reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
However, a review of the latest report on climate change issued by the IPCC -- the organization that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore two weeks ago for efforts to educate the public about climate change -- shows that it contains an entire chapter about the human health impacts.
The IPCC report describes in detail how climate change would lead to effects such as heat waves, cold spells, extreme weather events and weather disasters, air pollution, increased infectious diseases, and increased waterborne and vector-borne infectious diseases.
These same effects, listed point-by-point in Gerberding's original CDC testimony, were among the casualties in the edited version.
"The science that Dr. Gerberding was trying to bring forward was based on the IPCC report," Knowlton said. "It's quite stunning that only weeks after that group received the Nobel prize for their work that the White House is deleting scientific statements based on that work. What was cut was the section with the details -- the most detailed sections on the health impact of global warming, including descriptions of the links that are coming out of the IPCC report."
There was overwhelming agreement in the scientific community that the information was in no way alarmist or controversial.
"This is really standard information available to anyone on the issue," said Dale Jamieson, director of environmental studies at New York University. "What was removed was an uncontroversial report of what is currently known and believed about the fact of climate change, its health effects and its likely impacts on the United States."
"All of these [topics] are routinely mentioned in public health coursework across the nation," agreed Dr. Alan Ducatman, a professor of community medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. "Each ? can be found in the pages of leading journals, such as Science and Nature. If anything, they understate the problem."
Censoring the Science
The problem, according to the unedited version of the testimony, is that climate change is likely to have a significant impact on health -- and not only due to heat waves and disease epidemics.
The CDC report highlighted other issues addressed in the IPCC report, including how extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes will cause deaths, large-scale population displacement and contamination of drinking water. Other concerns included how increases in temperatures encourage the formation of ground level ozone, the primary ingredient of smog which can cause permanent lung damage and aggravate chronic lung diseases, such as asthma.
Also, climate change is predicted to alter agriculture, leading to the scarcity of some foods and increases in prices, a concern for the poor in America.
Following the deletion of these details, the remaining parts of the testimony discussed the CDC's preparedness measures -- but seemed to omit what it was they were preparing for.
"The redacted version just is a very strange document. It becomes a kind of recitation of what the CDC does in general," Jamieson said. "It becomes strangely decontextualized once you take out all the [relevant] material."
"We talk of the politicization of science," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health. "In the politicization of this topic -- the science wasn't changed, it was deleted."
Could Edits Hurt Disaster Response?
Public health experts also expressed their fear over the potential impacts of ignoring the deleted sections of the testimony.
"If communities -- states and counties -- aren't given the information and the resources ? if there isn't planning to be prepared for these global warming related disasters, then our governments won't be able to help us," said Knowlton.
Jamieson agreed. "By not informing the public or emphasizing preparedness, you set yourself up for a Katrina-like failure, but on a global scale."
Significant concerns were also raised that damaging the credibility of the CDC could threaten Americans' welfare in the long run.
"We know from previous health threats, for example anthrax, 9/11, and concerns about pandemic influenza, that having a credible and believable voice from our highest officials is the best way to inform the public and get a reasonable response," said Rosenstock.
"If we have antics -- and I mean the word antics -- where we undermine the credibility of the most credible public health official, then we hurt our ability to respond to health threats."
Knowlton also felt that if information is not forthcoming from public officials, Americans may need to educate themselves. "People really need to be reading and learning," she said. "Even if the White House doesn't want them to."