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On Oil Spills and Making Mistakes July 14, 2010

Posted by Nancy Hepp in Newsletter introductions.
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Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

In a recent interview regarding the BP oil disaster, Bill McKibben pointed out that even if all the oil had reached its intended destination—i.e., your corner gas station—it still would be an ecological and human health catastrophe. It is only because of the acute and immediate impacts of this so-called “spill” (which hardly captures nature of the devastation) that we actually stop, at least for a moment, and consider the magnitude of the ways we humans persistently undermine the health of our home planet and thus, ourselves.

A colleague once said to me: “I don’t mind making mistakes—that’s how we get better at what we do; but I don’t want to make the same mistakes—only new mistakes.” The current oil calamity in the Gulf is another profoundly sad example of our proclivity to repeatedly make myopic mistakes. Though this situation may be considered the single largest environmental disaster in US history, it is hardly an aberration—and it is hardly just an “environmental” disaster. Instead, the current oil spill only underscores how challenging it seems to be for us to make systemic changes for the benefit of all as well as why we should never forget that human health and environmental health are inherently inseparable.

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Preventing Cancer: A Call to Action July 12, 2010

Posted by Nancy Hepp in Uncategorized.
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Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director

reprinted with the author’s permission from the Science and Environmental Network’s Networker

Identifying the causes of cancer, in order to help develop preventive strategies, has been of great interest for a long time. Almost 30 years ago, the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress commissioned two British epidemiologists, Richard Doll and Richard Peto, to quantify the avoidable risks of cancer in the US. They limited their evaluation to cancer deaths in people under age 65 and, using epidemiologic data, estimated the largest contributors to be tobacco (30%) and diet (35%). Far down on the list were environmental pollution (2%) and occupational exposures (4%).

Doll and Peto were fairly confident about their estimates for tobacco and less so about diet. They acknowledged that estimating other factors, including pollutants, was hampered even more by a number of assumptions, data gaps, and uncertainties. Despite these limits, which other analysts have repeatedly pointed out over the ensuing years, many scientists and policy makers continue to accept Doll and Peto’s estimates as fact. Their numbers have supported arguments against spending time and resources to reduce exposures to environmental contaminants, emphasizing instead the importance of personal lifestyle choices.

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A Bridge to Somewhere – Responding to the President’s Cancer Panel Report (Part 1) July 8, 2010

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Sandra Steingraber, PhD
CHE Partner

This essay is reprinted with permission from Sandra’s “Living Downstream” website.


The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.

—Theodore Roosevelt (inscribed on the wall of the U.S. Capitol Building)

On May 21, I participated in a congressional staff briefing organized by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment and the Breast Cancer Fund in conjunction with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The topic was the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released on May 6. The essay below is taken from the first half of my presentation. The second half appears in this space next week. My co-presenters were physician Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and epidemiologist Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH, first director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry and a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

I was last here in Washington, DC, just a month ago as part of a film and book tour. My book Living Downstream, which explores the environmental links to cancer, has recently been released as an updated second edition as well as a documentary film. The movie version premiered here as part of the a special screening hosted by the DC Environmental Film Festival.

A few hours before the film screening, I jogged over to the Smithsonian Institution to visit the new Hall of Human Origins and its life-like mannequins of Lucy and other hominids. I’m a biologist; I have an abiding fondness for natural history exhibits. I also had a special reason for this particular visit.

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