The good news and the good news in the public health blogosphere

Two kinds of good news for anyone interested in safeguarding the public's health. Let's divide it between the message and the messenger.

The message: The National Research Council (one of the four constituent parts of the National Academies of Science) just issued a major smackdown of one of the Bush Administration's pet projects, the assault on any regulation that might harm the corporate status quo. The specific policy given a blunt thumbs down by the NRC was the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) of the White House Office of Management and Budget's bulletin to establish blanket mandates for all risk assessments.

If you think you know what a risk assessment is, compared to OMB you'd find you were a small mind thinking tiny. According to the NRC, the bulletin's definition of risk assessment was so broad it would have included things like the National Toxicology Program's Report on Carcinogens, space shuttle launches, structural investigations of bridge integrity and hazardous waste site evaluations. But that was the point. To catch as many things as possible in the net and then throw back the little guys. And the ones you wanted to keep and eat?

The bulletin would have devastating consequences for federal capacity to protect the public. As the NRC report notes, these consequences include "the likely drain on agency resources, the extended time necessary to complete risk assessments that are undertaken, and the highly likely disruptive effect on many agencies." The panel wryly adds that "OMB, the champion of benefit-cost analysis for decision-making," has failed to consider these costs. (J. Robert Shull, writing at The Pump Handle)

The idea was to paralyze any new regulations by years of review, requirements, evaluations and paperwork. This isn't fanciful. The Bush Administration is already doing it with the tools at hand, but this was a power tool. Much easier.

The NRC report also noted that the new mandates were summary measure oriented, that is, they required assessments to be based on the average sensitivity and tended to ignore the vulnerable tails of the distribution. You know, like the young, the very old, the pregnant woman and her fetus. It's the 70 kg male adult and the 50 kg female that was to drive the bus. Not that the bus was likely to leave the garage.

As a result of the devastating critique, OMB has announced it will not be issuing the draft bulletin in final form. At least for now. Maybe the election canceling the stamp of the rubber stamp congress will bring some improvement. We can hope.

So that's the message "good news." But the messenger is also good news. This post by Public Citizen's Robert Shull appeared on a new and up and coming public health blog, The Pump Handle. At this point, full disclosure is necessary. The Reveres are among the founders of The Pump Handle and we've cross posted there and some of us will post there under our real names as well (maybe we already have; that's for you to figure out). We will immodestly claim credit for the name of the blog as well. It takes its origin from a famous episode in public health history.

In 1854 one of the worst cholera outbreaks in Victorian London history burned like an inferno through the city's Golden Square neighborhood. Dr. John Snow, who lived just on the fringes of the area and knew it well, did an intense investigation in the first week of the disaster and collected sufficient information to convince himself the disease was being spread through a local pump on Broad Street. He was able to persuade the local Board of Aldermen to take the handle off the pump, thus preventing further use. The epidemic abated (actually it was already abating at the time the handle was removed, but the myth lives on). Since then, "taking the handle off the pump" has become public health's most famous metaphor for the ultimate goal of preventing disease.

The Pump Handle is only the newest of a growing collection of excellent public health blogs. Our model is different than the others, however. In the climate change area, the blog RealClimate has become the "go to" destination for journalists and others who want authoritative answers to questions raised by a small army of industry financed climate change debunkers. The bloggers at RealClimate are well known atmospheric scientists who sign their posts (for the comfort of journalists and readers) and are available to them for follow-up. They have had a major impact on the quality of science reporting on climate change. By attracting a similar cadre of outstanding and well-known public health scientists The Pump Handle would like to play the same role for environmental and occupational health.

TPH has been around for about a month. We had a "soft launch" in December and since most public health experts have no experience with blogs and the "literary" form they embody, the blog has been getting its sea legs and finding its voice. Shull's piece is one of a number recently showing that TPH is maturing (see also Mike Silverstien's thought provoking piece on OSHA at 35). We hope with the help of the many readers interested in having an authoritative and uncorrupted source of information on certain environmental and occupational public health issues it will have a rapid rise to prominence in the small community of public health.

Visit TPH, watch it grow and mature. Maybe help it do both. But don't leave us here at Effect Measure. We still want you.


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