4 Ways the Government Shutdown Is Messing with Your Health

It's not just government bickering—your health is on the line while Congress battles over the budget.

October 14, 2013

With disease surveillance on hold, you could find yourself caught offguard by a nasty local flu outbreak.

As the government shutdown drags on for a third week, there are lots of stories about weddings being cancelled at federal monuments and national parks being closed to tourists (a situation that's apparently so economically devastating that the governor of Utah declared a state of emergency for four counties surrounding the state's popular parks).


But regardless of where you live, the shutdown is affecting you in some serious ways, even if you can't see them. Here are four things you should know about how it's affecting your daily life—and your health:

#1: There's no one inspecting the safety of your food supply.

Here's something really unsettling: According to a statement put out by the Department of Health and Human Services, "FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities." While the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has managed to maintain inspectors at meat- and poultry-processing plants, the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of fruits and vegetables as well as processed foods, has furloughed 45 percent of its workforce and has gone from inspecting 200 farms and food-processing plants per week to zero, according to The New York Times. The FDA is also limiting the number of inspections of imported food it undertakes, although, even when it's fully staffed, the agency manages to inspect only 2 percent of all imported food. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has furloughed a large number of epidemiologists and other public health officials who oversee the government database that tracks outbreaks of foodborne illness.

More from Rodale News: Government Shutdown Leaves You Vulnerable to Filthy Chicken

What it means for you: Lapses in food inspections mean that potentially unsafe foods could be winding up on store shelves unchecked. Now is a great time to care where your food comes from: Hit up your local farmer's market so you're getting your food close to the source and touched by as few hands as possible.

#2: You could be caught off-guard by a possibly nasty flu season.

Because the CDC has been so stymied—68 percent of the agency's staff has been temporarily laid off—the agency can't track this year's flu season, which is already under way. That means that the agency won't be conducting any surveillance of flu and other disease outbreaks, which would ordinarily alert state and local public health officials to any troubling trends, such as the nasty early-2013 triple threat of flu, norovirus, and whooping cough. And it doesn't take long for a flu epidemic to spread: The CDC had sequenced the H1N1 virus behind the 2009 swine-flu pandemic and was able to track it back to its origins in Mexico within weeks of the virus's appearance in the U.S.

More from Rodale News: 5 Herbs that Cure the Flu

What it means for you:  Get a flu shot, and wash your hands…a lot. Thankfully, the flu vaccines for this year have already been developed and deployed, and getting one is a good preventive measure against the uncertainty of what's to come.

#3: Your water supply is up for grabs…by bacteria and pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was hit particularly hard by the shutdown, furloughing 94 percent of its employees. The agency can't monitor air pollution emitted by factories and coal-fired power plants, nor can it monitor all the Superfund sites it's trying to clean up. But it also can't monitor your local water supply. "Nobody is going to be out inspecting wastewater-treatment plants, drinking-water-treatment plants, or landfills," John O'Grady, a union representative at the EPA's Chicago office, told The Guardian newspaper. Although local water departments are required to test your drinking water on a regular basis, state governments are responsible for reporting violations of safe drinking-water standards to the EPA. If the EPA isn't functioning, there's no one to review those violations and enforce compliance with the law. There's also no one monitoring rivers, lakes, and streams—which provide drinking water in some areas—for pollution from farms and factories.

More from Rodale News: Is Tap Water Safe to Drink?

What it means for you: The safety of your drinking water is vital, and without EPA's monitoring, you could be left vulnerable to pollutants. Unfortunately, bottled water is no safer, given that it's monitored by the FDA and the FDA has also slashed food-safety inspections. Water filters help remove some contaminants, but it's worth calling your municipal water supplier and find out its contingency plans during the shutdown.

#4: You'll have to put up with less-organic organics.

Late last week, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which creates the guidelines for the USDA's National Organic Program, announced that it would be cancelling its fall meeting, at which the ingredients and procedures used in organic farming would be discussed and reviewed. The National Organic Program has been essentially nonfunctioning since the shutdown began, says Liana Hoodes, executive director at the nonprofit (and nongovernmental) National Organic Coalition. The biggest roadblock this poses is for organic certifiers, who can't communicate with the USDA about questions and problems that come up during the certification process. Furthermore, at the now-cancelled meeting, she says that the NOSB was slated to discuss—and most likely discontinue—the use of the antibiotic streptomycin on apple and pear trees, a practice allowed in organic apple production to control a devastating blight that can destroy entire orchards. The NOSB was also likely to begin disallowing the use of synthetic methionine in chicken feed; methionine is an amino acid chickens need for growth, and although natural sources are viable, most chicken feed is fortified with a synthetic version. "We feel like its time the industry stepped up to develop those natural sources," Hoodes says.

More from Rodale News: What Does "Organic" Mean Anyway?

What it means for you: "Organic certifiers are still on the job," says Hoodes, so there's little concern that organic foods are ripe for fraud during the shutdown. By all means, continue to buy certified-organic foods, but email your congressmen and tell them you're sick of them messing with the safety of your food and water and your ability to buy truly organic food.