Reflections on 2009

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like the environmental health train picked up some extraordinary speed in 2009. Starting with the National Academy of Science’s report “Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment,” which makes recommendations to address the current limitations of risk assessment; moving to the appointments of Dr. Lisa Jackson as the new EPA Administrator and Dr. Linda Birnbaum as the new Director of NIEHS; then to the seminal publication of The Endocrine Society’s statement on the health implications of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) (and the subsequent resolution on EDCs passed by the American Medical Association); the publication of the “Common Agenda for Health and the Environment‘” by the Lowell Center for Sustainability with input from hundreds of colleagues, offering principles for implementing concrete steps towards a healthier future; Nicholas Kristof’s compelling series of New York Times op-eds focused on EDCs; Administrator Jackson’s consistent message that we must ensure children’s health is at the center of every regulatory and policy decision; the significant push to prioritize the health of vulnerable populations in the climate change discussions; and the increasing momentum on chemical policy reform on state and national levels – to name just a few noteworthy events over the course of the year.

I also want to acknowledge that many of you, our CHE partners, played pivotal roles in these and other remarkable actions and publications this year – often behind the scenes and in understated ways, but with no less potency. And of course, what we see manifesting today is built on decades of courageous and tenacious efforts of those on the front lines of science and on the fence lines of communities.

So what is next? I believe the burgeoning science and reflective discussions in CHE and elsewhere are encouraging us more and more to figure out how to move not only one train faster down a track, but to understand how myriad tracks interact and loop back and join together at different times and in different modalities – in short, to apply complexity theory to ecological health in concrete, effective terms. Taking a systems approach would entail finding meaningful ways to address the fact that, as Michael Lerner, co-founder and Vice Chair of CHE, summarized in a recent e-mail to the CHE Science listserv, “a high number of different endogenous and exogenous factors in and around the human organism encounter different inherited genetic dispositions and different patterns of gene expression so that different people reach the ‘final common pathways’ of different diseases for different combinations of reasons.” We are seeing this in the scientific literature on metabolic syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s and many other conditions. The task at hand then is to press for restructuring our regulatory system, our food system, our health care system, and our economic system to make health, justice and sustainability the highest priorities — in fact, to make those inalienable rights of current and future generations. Daunting, yes. Impossible, no.

We each are engaged in various aspects of this dynamic system, and we each need to stay focused on our part to ensure its success. At the same time, we need to consistently review our efforts in relationship to the whole. This is nothing new. It just gets harder to do as our understanding of the variables and complexity grows. That said, if we bring our intelligence, creativity and wisdom to our collective conversations and initiatives, we can and will make healthier choices based on the best available science. That is what CHE is all about. In 2010, we invite you to continue to contribute your expertise and insights to our common work.  

Warmest wishes for the holidays and a healthier-than-ever New Year.

Changing the Landscape

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

The American Medical Association (AMA) took an unprecedented action yesterday: It unanimously passed a resolution calling for new policies to decrease public exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) [read more] based on the Endocrine Society’s seminal scientific statement on EDCs published last summer [read the statement]. Both The Endocrine Society Statement and the AMA’s resolution mark an historical turning point for mainstream medical associations. For the first time, tens of thousands of prestigious health professionals are saying in no uncertain terms:

Exposures to many industrial chemicals are contributing to the epidemic of chronic diseases and disabilities, including diabetes, obesity, learning and developmental disorders, infertility and other reproductive health problems. 
  • We have enough science to undertake proactive health measures.
  • The risk to public health is too great to wait any longer. 
  • We need to act now to implement health protective policies and regulations.

Many CHE partners were involved in catalyzing this remarkable action. We now would like to encourage other health-related professional societies to adopt similar resolutons to signal to national leaders and policymakers that fundamental chemical policy reform can no longer be side-lined. In fact, chemical policy reform is not only integral to health care reform, as I suggested in last month’s CHE e-newsletter, but to climate change as well. EPA Administrator Jackson made this point on Monday in her remarks at the American Public Health Association conference. She announced greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles, a first for the EPA, saying the limits would mean “less harmful pollution that sends people to the hospital with asthma, heart disease, and any number of other conditions.”

In this context, what if we prioritized these same health-focused principles in climate change decisions across the board? That is, in essence, what CHE organizational partners, the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), are calling for in a new campaign entitled “Prescription for a Healthy Planet.” To date, protecting public health has been essentially left out of the conversation in international talks on climate change. At the upcoming Copenhagen summit in December, however, we have an opportunity to ensure that children’s health and that of other vulnerable populations are prioritized. As stated in the “Prescription”, “a fair and binding international agreement in Copenhagen means: less global warming, less illness, lower healthcare costs, better health for the world population and a healthier planet.” This sounds promising. But right now very little research and discussion has focused on climate change and health.

What we do know is that children will be the most impacted by climate change. Nine percent of American children already suffer from asthma and those attacks will become more numerous and severe with increased air pollution and ozone levels – and of course, the number of children affected in developing countries, where there may be even less regulation on pollutants, will likely be far higher. In addition, we will be faced with increased exposures to industrial chemicals as recently outlined by the World Health Organization. For example, with more extreme storms and floods, there will be greater runoff of chemicals used in urban and agricultural areas into surface and ground waters. With increased drought, non-volatile chemicals and toxic metals will concentrate and rapidly enter groundwater supplies through parched soil when rain finally comes. In addition, global warming will release chemicals currently trapped in glacial ice, and changing weather patterns will move persistent chemicals through water and air streams in ways previously unanticipated. And this doesn’t even begin to describe other concerns about increased infectious diseases and the challenges of whole populations migrating elsewhere because of rising sea water and less fertile land.

All of this is to say that the AMA and myriad other health professional societies in the US and abroad are essential to figuring out solutions to this thorny nexus of pressing public health issues, namely: chemical policy reform, health care reform and the impact of climate change on human health. Through ongoing efforts to translate the best available science for lay audiences and to incubate strategic health-focused initiatives, I have no doubt CHE partners can continue to change the landscape in which these major decisions – decisions affecting all of us and future generations – are made.