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Government, stay out of the pool

January 18, 2009

Citing our poor health, government scolds us for not exercising. Then when we try to exercise, government says we can't, citing, of all things, health regulations.

Because of a $2 billion budget deficit, the State of Maryland says it is looking for inexpensive ways this year to improve our quality of life.

Here would be a good start: Wipe out a whole raft of state-imposed regulations that prevent whole communities from getting healthier under the theory that one member of that community might not, however slim that chance might be.

A clear example was on display this week, when a group of seniors were told they could no longer swim at the pool in the Plaza Hotel because there's no life guard on duty. Guests of the hotel can swim there without a life guard. But not the group of seniors, who had been doing so for years, apparently without incident.

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That's because the state uses an arcane set of legal definitions for "public pools," "semi-public pools" and "recreational pools." Apparently, the state believes the water is wetter in a public pool than in the other kinds, so there is more chance for drowning.

So a great, healthy and mutually beneficial program among private senior citizens and private enterprise is wiped out in the name of unyielding state regulations. Of course the local health department is just following the law and probably has little choice in the matter, but it is nonsense when it insists that the state "did not close the pool." That line is spoken like a true - well, a true member of a government agency.

If there were no health department (i.e., state) interference, it seems clear that the seniors would still happily be swimming at the Plaza. So don't talk to us about how, technically, it is the hotel's responsibility to do this or that. It is the state's responsibility to enact rules that make some degree of sense.

And this isn't the only area where the health department flies squarely in the face of our health. Many people want to purchase wholesome, locally raised meat or buy raw milk from a local farm that hasn't been tainted by the nation's industrial-agricultural complex. But they can't, because these small farms don't have a government inspector analyzing every step of the production process.

Think back to the last few, food-related health scares. Spinach, ground beef, tomatoes, peanut butter - all were products of big, government approved agribusiness. Such episodes are rare on the conscientious, family farms that the government assures us cause certain death.

It all gets back to risk, and our preoccupation with wanting to reduce our risk-factor to zero. But in life, this can never be. We know now that fretful mothers who scoop their tots off of a dirty floor are doing them no favors, because children need exposure to germs in order to fight them. In our pursuit of zero-risk, we make things worse.

Of course legal liabilities have a strong hand in this phenomenon as well, and our propensity to sue over every unlucky turn of an ankle has contributed in no small way to the problem.

But the state could make a strong start in the disassembly of the zero-risk fallacy by allowing for activities that have a one in a million chance of working out badly, but otherwise contribute to the greater good and a richer, healthier life.

I believe the great majority of us are comfortable taking responsibility for our own decisions and do not require state protection at every turn.

The added benefit would be to bring respect back to our health departments. These agencies are, or should be, one of our more serious and important advocates when it comes to the big matters of keeping sewage from seeping into the public water supply or plants belching toxic chemicals into the air.

Yet today, say the words "health department," and you get a variety stray snickers and rolling of eyes. That's because just about everyone has some first-hand story of government cracking down on the brownies they're trying to sell at their yard sales. Elimination of these trivial and time consuming deeds would restore health departments to their proper standing as respected agencies that work for the people instead of telling them where they can and can't swim.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. E-mail him at timr@herald.mail.com

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