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CDC Director Robert Redfield looks on while testifying on Capitol Hill on July 2, 2020. (Photo: Graeme Jennings/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

CDC Director Robert Redfield looks on while testifying on Capitol Hill on July 2, 2020. (Photo: Graeme Jennings/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

After Covid-19 Flip-Flops, CDC Director Must Resign

Either science goes, or Redfield goes.

Ken Cook

 by The Environmental Working Group

Today I wrote to Dr. Robert Redfield calling on him to resign as the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It was not a letter I wrote lightly. But with the events of the past few months, the decision – and the need – to write it could not have been clearer.

Millions of people come to EWG every year for our science-based advice and guides to healthier living, from our Dirty Dozen™ guide to pesticides in produce to our Skin Deep® database of cosmetic product ratings and EWG VERIFIED™ product certification; from our Tap Water Database to our Healthy Living: Home Guide. We develop this information to help people protect themselves and their families for two reasons.

First, because it is in people’s power to take practical, affordable steps to reduce toxic exposures, drink cleaner water, eat healthier food, find cleaner beauty products and so on. EWG is here to help people exercise that self-help power, which can often accomplish the same health goals faster and deeper than any government regulation could possibly achieve.

The whole point of the CDC is to stand firmly on science—and science alone—when rogue waves of political and economic expediency threaten to wash away concern for public health.

The second reason is that, in case after case, when the government should be taking steps to protect all of us from pollution, toxic pesticides and sketchy chemicals, it simply isn’t doing its job.

Which is why since our inception almost 30 years ago, EWG has also been at the forefront of public policy research and advocacy to hold government and its leaders accountable for protecting the environment and human health. From start to finish, we are watchdogs of public health in the public interest. We publish research; we campaign; we lobby to get the government (and companies) to do the right thing.

We have never shied from publicly criticizing agencies, or politicians from either party, when we have concluded their actions failed to protect human health or, worse, through action or inaction actually threatened it.

When a Clinton-era advisory committee went soft on pesticide regulation, I publicly resigned in protest. When the Bush administration convened a gaggle of energy lobbyists to write national energy policy, we called it out. When Obama’s White House deep-sixed the first Environmental Protection Agency effort in a generation to regulate toxic industrial chemicals, we harshly and publicly criticized his gift to the chemical industry.

Of course, no administration has come close to making environmental and public health deregulation a priority the way Donald Trump’s has, and we have been second to none in our criticism of his government’s many destructive anti-environmental actions since 2017.

Still, today’s letter to Redfield stands apart.

Like many other organizations working across the broad field of public health around the world, EWG has relied on the CDC for scientific research and data on critical questions pertaining to the effects of toxic chemicals and pollution on human health. To be clear, we have not always agreed with CDC’s scientific interpretations and guidance.

For instance, over the years we have noted with dismay the degree to which, in our opinion, the agency underplays the implications of its ongoing National Biomonitoring Program, which has documented the presence of hundreds of toxic industrial chemicals, contaminants and pesticides in Americans’ blood and urine.

But the CDC is not a regulatory agency. It doesn’t have the power to make companies or other government agencies control pollution, ban chemicals or take hazardous products off the market. The CDC conducts scientific research and reviews and then issues its findings and conclusions, and sometimes guidance, to advance public health. 

More to the point, the CDC has never said it’s just fine that Americans have hundreds of suspect chemicals in our bodies. It has never issued guidance stating that more pollution would be good for the economy, or that we should stop testing our population because doing so will only turn up more toxic chemicals in more people, and that might cause Americans to panic.

But that is exactly what has gone wrong with the management of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, under Dr. Redfield’s controversial leadership at the CDC – which, fittingly enough, was known in its early years as the Communicable Disease Center.

As news accounts and internal documents and emails have shown, Redfield has enabled the fundamental scientific mission and processes of the CDC to be subverted by partisan political motives whose overall intent is to downplay the severity of Covid-19 and rush people back to work, and kids back to school, before it is safe to do so for the health of the overall population.

This summer, Redfield allowed the CDC’s good name to be put on Covid-19 school reopening guidance that was presented as the agency’s scientific work product. But that document opened with a statement added by political appointees that overrode science and prioritized getting kids physically back in school (and by extension, rushing parents back to work). That was not what CDC scientists advised, and eventually the guidance was reversed.

Then Redfield stood by again as guidance issued under the CDC logo recommended against testing people who had come in contact with Covid-19-positive people who didn’t present symptoms of the disease. That, too, was a political hatchet job, in this case designed to reduce the official infection count and make it seem as if Covid-19 was, well, “just disappearing.”

This guidance, too, directly contradicted agency scientists, who – like virtually every expert in infectious disease control – recognize such testing as vital to tracing the march of a disease through a population, the better to target interventions. As with the dangerous guidance to reopen schools, the CDC testing guidance, quite literally fatally flawed, was also reversed.

In recent testimony before Congress, Redfield very persuasively underscored the importance of wearing masks, going so far as to say they are likely to be a more effective way to contain the virus’s spread, even if we do eventually have a vaccine. Good for him. But shortly after a White House response, he cartwheeled into a reversal of sorts, promoting the importance of vaccines we don’t yet have over the masks we have at the ready.

For all I know Redfield may have changed course yet again. I haven’t looked at Twitter in over an hour.  

Never before has a CDC leader dragged the agency through such a series of manifestly deadly misstatements of science, willful communications blunders and life-threatening guidance flip-flops.

As I write to Redfield, the CDC is no naif when it comes to high-stakes controversies, which have surrounded the agency since inception. The whole point of the CDC is to stand firmly on science – and science alone – when rogue waves of political and economic expediency threaten to wash away concern for public health. Of course, institutions don’t do anything that isn’t done by the people who animate them.

And that’s the problem with Redfield.

Never before has a CDC leader dragged the agency through such a series of manifestly deadly misstatements of science, willful communications blunders and life-threatening guidance flip-flops, all at the behest of political leaders whose publicly avowed goal is to minimize the mortal danger the novel coronavirus poses to the American people.

Every administration has the right to appoint whomever it sees fit to operate the machinery of government. But citizens are under no obligation to accept an operator like Redfield, who enables conspicuously dangerous advice to be issued in aid of electoral expediency by an agency that has been trusted around the world to provide scientific perspective and guidance, unfiltered by politics, on threats to public health. 

And so by our reckoning, in these nightmarish pandemic times, it comes down to this: Either science goes, or Redfield goes.

Ken Cook

Ken Cook is President and co-founded of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). He is the author of dozens of articles, opinion pieces and reports on environmental, public health and agricultural topics. Cook earned B.A., B.S., and M.S. degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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