Another Cry for Primary Prevention

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise MillerHow many of us have sat with loved ones in the throes of cancer? No doubt way too many. My cousin just passed away two days ago from lung cancer, having never smoked in her life. She joins several other family members and close friends who have died of one form of cancer or another in the last few years. Unfortunately, all of you likely have similar stories to share, and not just about older people in your lives, but about those younger and younger—including those who exercise regularly and have healthy diets.

One would think this untenable situation would catapult our society into action—it would move us to do whatever it takes to implement primary prevention strategies, not just look for cures. But instead the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental contributors to cancer sits on the proverbial shelf collecting dust. As do other seminal reports that provide clear analyses of the science linking chemical contaminants and other chronic diseases and disorders as well as how to address these issues—such as Endocrine Society’s statement on endocrine disrupting chemicals, the joint opinion issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) on environmental chemicals and reproductive health, and the National Academy of Sciences “Science and Decisions” report which offers concrete recommendations to contend with the inadequacies of current risk assessment practices—to name just a few.

Not only are we slow to respond collectively to the knowledge we already have regarding human health, we also regularly learn that some advances in our field, such as removing bisphenol A (BPA) from water bottles or taking triclosan out of cosmetics, turn out not to be lasting victories for public health. Instead, the synthetic chemicals used as replacements are found to have potential human health impacts as well—usually after the new product is already out in the marketplace [see Avon plans to remove triclosan from products, but what will replace it?, The Guardian].

I could of course go on and on, but my point here is not to plunge us all into despair with a litany of multiple and interrelated woes that can undermine our health. Instead, when anyone close to us dies of a disease that might have been preventable, I think it’s useful to pause and reflect on the reality in which we live. And for me, that time of reflection then serves as a springboard for my renewed commitment to voicing the truth—whether that is about the mounting environmental health science linking certain exposures to chronic disease and disability, the need for chemical policy reform, the promise of green chemistry, the interplay of the social and environmental determinants of health, or the exceptional persistence of communities fighting for their rights to clean water, air and food. The comforting news is that my voice is not alone, but is inspired and amplified by the concerted efforts of colleagues like you.

As we experience the often devastating effects of chronic disease and disabilities on those near and far, may our collective cry for primary prevention finally be heard. Thank you for all that you do to move us towards this goal.

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