The Trump administration spent its four years in office rolling back environmental protection regulations, one after the other, all the while complaining that they were too onerous and cost too much for companies to implement. But while cutting more than 110 environmental rules may have saved money for the gas and oil industry, it cost the country in lives. According to a new study published by the British medical journal The Lancet, former President Donald Trump's slashing of regulations resulted in 22,000 excess deaths in 2019 alone.
Things got even worse once the coronavirus pandemic hit. The 33 scientists who examined U.S. policy under Trump along with health outcomes throughout the United States determined that the administration's handling of the pandemic, including its decision to ignore and undermine public health experts, is responsible alone for about 40% of the country's coronavirus-related deaths. The figure assumes the U.S. reaches 500,000 deaths by the end of February, which it is well on track to do as more than 3,000 people continue to die each day from the virus.
In total, that would attribute about 200,000 coronavirus deaths specifically to Trump's handling of the pandemic. That plus the 22,200 deaths in 2019 attributable to his environmental policies has the researchers estimating that Trump’s decisions over the last two years killed 222,000 people.
To make these determinations, researchers used historical comparisons of U.S. health outcomes from previous administrations, as well as data from other wealthy, developed nations, and compared it to what happened in America under Trump. What became abundantly clear was that policies put in place by Trump and his cohorts resulted in more unnecessary deaths that would not have occurred under prior administrations facing the same circumstances.
Deaths from environmental and occupational exposure to pollution, for example, started increasing in a significant way for the first time in half a century in 2017, per the study. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Boston College and one of the co-authors of the paper, told Bloomberg that this was likely the result of the Trump administration's lax approach to regulation. “Basically, the Trump administration stopped enforcing the Clean Air Act,” he said. Previous research similarly found that Trump’s policy is at least in part responsible for the first significant drop off in air quality the U.S. has experienced in more than a decade.
Other little changes also contributed to these spikes in deaths and worse health outcomes. The decision to eliminate the National Security Council’s global health security team, as well as a move to freeze hiring at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that resulted in nearly 700 positions unfilled, weakened public health infrastructure and left the country unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. Then there was the fact that the number of people without health insurance increased by 2.3 million over the course of Trump's presidency, thanks to his and his party’s ongoing effort to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.
The extra depressing part of all of this is that the 222,000 deaths attributed directly to Trump’s policies is likely just the tip of the iceberg. The research only accounts for one year of Trump’s policy effects and the pandemic response that had already been maligned by health experts. The reality is that negative health effects caused by the former president’s environmental negligence and ignorance of the pandemic will likely reverberate for decades to come. Even as the Biden administration works to improve the government's response to the pandemic and reinstate the environmental protections that Trump ruthlessly slashed, so much damage as has already been done — even if we can’t see it yet.