Friday, June 16, 2017

Maryland Health Department Staff Emails 
Reflect Startling Apathy for Children's Health

It's disturbing to read the callous questions that health department staffers posed to each other when considering the classroom screen safety legislation that was sponsored by over 25 delegates in the most recent Maryland General Assembly session.

House Bill 866 directed the health department to craft digital device safety and health guidelines that would protect Maryland students from known and avoidable health threats that could permanently damage our children.

Ponder that, for a moment. Students are required to use school devices that are known to be hazardous, with no oversight or protection, putting them at unnecessary risk for retinal damage, muscle and joint pain, sleeplessness, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression and addiction. More concerns are raised about these devices every day, and have been for decades.

The Maryland bill would have protected our kids from avoidable health risks that their schools are imposing on them. This can't be repeated often enough, or loudly enough.

Staff communications obtained through a Public Information Act (PIA) request reveal the attitudes of state health department managers who focused exclusively on their own political advantage, not on our children's health, when considering the MD classroom screen safety legislation.

Getting the PIA request documents has been a struggle. They were not provided within the required 30 days. The files were modified -- headers, names of recipients and emails were deleted before the documents were provided. And top staffers have consistently ignored subsequent requests for complete documentation.

To understand the emails DHMH has provided so far, a lesson is needed to decipher the units of this bloated department. DHMH stands for Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. PHPA stands for the Prevention and Health Promotion Agency. Since PHPA is responsible for environmental health issues, some believe PHPA should craft the classroom screen safety guidelines.

OPHI stands for Office of Public Health Improvement.  The Office of School Health (OSH) is in the OPHI division. Dr. Cheryl De Pinto is the medical director. Tina Backe is the School Health coordinator. NP stands for "No position." And LL stands for legislative liaison.

Here is an email from Ms. Backe asking unnamed staff members (the original header on the email was not provided in the PIA documents) to review the digital device safety bill. She instructs them to keep a number of considerations in mind.

What's missing?
Any mention whatsoever of our children's health.  From the School Health Services Program Coordinator. Not one word.

Now read what Dr. De Pinto writes. It's important to realize that she is a pediatrician, which makes her disregard for our children nothing short of chilling. It's astounding that a pediatrician who has written findings on Maryland childhood obesity for the CDC could wash her hands of our children's health so completely and focus her thoughts exclusively on political bureaucracy. Childhood obesity and its relationship to digital media use is an alarm sounded by major health organizations and universities nationwide. This is a public health issue, not a debate about curriculum.

Even her own colleague questions her position - look at the original email, below. Ms. Backe implies responsibility, and notes that they already write guidelines with the department of education (MSDE).  She asks, "How is it that OPHI is not involved in the creation of these guidelines?"

Excellent question, Ms. Backe.

Sadly there are more emails that show apathy for students from those who are supposed to protect them. This pediatrician, who is a long-standing top manager in the department, desperately tries to dodge any responsibility:

The answer to Dr. De Pinto's question came from the Environmental Health Board director. He requested $100,000 in consultation fees in a letter to the fiscal policy analyst reviewing HB866, claiming this bulging health department, replete with experts, needed to hire an outside consultant to craft digital device safety guidelines for Maryland students.

Details to follow.

Cindy Eckard

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Public Information Act Request Results: 
State officials disregard children's health, seek political expedience

Over 25 Maryland lawmakers recently signed on as sponsors for legislation that would have required the state health department to create common sense guidelines to protect students from being harmed by hazardous school equipment: their digital devices. 

Using computers every day puts kids at risk for a variety of health issues - which has been scientifically documented for decades, by OSHA and other federal agencies. With the help of teachers' union leaders, the bills failed. But it wasn't just those few lawmakers; they had help from the health department, who was working hard to stay out of it, and dodge responsibility.

Since the close of the 

Much has happened since the close of the Maryland General Assembly session. Scientists who were looking into computer ergonomics and vision risks to students 30 years ago have been found. They tell the same story: we tried to stop this, but no one wanted to listen. 

Laptops unsafe as daily workstations

Manufacturers' warnings have been unearthed: laptops were never designed to be daily workstations. Makers like Dell and HP have openly warned against using them as such, and make specific recommendations for exterior keyboards and accessories to be used in order to prevent injury. But schools continue to ignore the manufacturers' warnings, as well as the health warnings voiced by the Maryland State Medical Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics' Maryland Chapter.
National attention to Maryland Legislation

The Maryland legislation has been featured in the media nationwide. BAM! Radio Network aired an interview on the ravages of daily computer use to our children and a Psychology Today article was published, entitled "Growing up in a False Reality." 

But the state health department continues to shirk its duty to protect our kids, who remain at risk for permanent eye damage, joint and muscle pain, addiction, anxiety, obesity and depression. 

Public Information Act request submitted

In response, a Public Information Act (PIA) request was submitted to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to better understand the Department's role in the legislation.

That PIA request was ignored for many weeks, long past the date required by Public Information Act regulations. When the documents were finally received, a profile of utter disregard for children's health emerged from all those involved. 

The staff emails show that they focused on "strategy," what was best for the DHMH staffers themselves, and political posturing. Our children's health? Secondary to their politics. According to one of the top leaders in the department, staffers should ensure screen safety responsibility didn't "land" with their unit.  Details, quotes and email screen shots will be posted here in the coming days.

Waiting to hear from Governor Larry Hogan

The lesson in the legislative process for screen safety is this: no legislation is needed to craft classroom safety guidelines. It is the job of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to protect students against public health threats, and to avoid known risks in the classroom. That's why kids don't play with mercury in science class any more. Turns out the schools were requiring students to put themselves in danger.

We're waiting to hear from Governor Hogan right now. His office is aware of the situation. He must ensure a safe place for our children to learn.

To stay updated, please follow @screensandkids. If you're not on Twitter, you can still visit this page to see what's new: (just click away from the sign-up window).

Cindy Eckard