Prevention, Anyone?

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise Miller, MEdYesterday, I attended the memorial service of another friend who died from cancer. For most of his career (which was still very much in full gear), he went around the world working with governments and other agencies to reduce pollution from mining operations. He was dedicated to improving the health of those working in the mines, their families, and their communities. As I sat with his family and dear friends, I wondered whether the heavy metals and other toxins he had been exposed to on those trips might have contributed to the onset of his cancer. We’ll never know, but the World Cancer Report released last week by the World Health Organization stating that cancer rates are expected to increase by 57% worldwide in the next 20 years gave me pause.

The report indicated that within two decades cancer cases will rise from 14 million annually to 22 million, and deaths from cancer could rise from 8.6 million to 13 million annually. This could mean that health care systems around the world, many of which are already stretched to the point of breaking, will need significantly more resources to respond to this looming crisis. This could also mean that many, many more people will be attending funerals and memorial services and will carry the grief of losing loved ones too soon.

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Geonotic Diseases: a New Taxonomy

Carolyn Raffensperger
Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network

This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the author. The full post can be found on the SEHN blog.

Premises:

1. There are taxonomies of human health and disease. Taxonomies are conceptual frameworks that organize our thinking by grouping things that share characteristics. One taxonomy of disease is based on the system of the body that is diseased: the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system. Within those systems there can be various disorders such as birth defects, cancer, or poisoning. Another taxonomy is the kind of disease: infectious disease, injuries, or chronic disease, as examples. Within the category of those diseases there can be further subdivisions. Within the domain of infectious diseases there are those known as zoonotic diseases. These are diseases that cross between species and are often carried by a vector such as mosquitoes or ticks.

2. Epidemiology specializes in two kinds of disease,  infectious and chronic. Frequently epidemiologists studying infectious disease investigate causes because there is usually a direct cause and a single effect with infectious diseases. Chronic disease specialists often study effects because many chronic diseases have multi-factorial causes making it harder to study causes.

3. Since the rise of industrialization the disease pattern has changed from primarily infectious disease to primarily chronic disease. Small pox and polio have been replaced by cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.

3. When it focuses on effects, rather than causes of chronic disease, the medical professions emphasize treatment of disease, rather than prevention of disease.

4. The causes of chronic diseases are often complex, ecological (both biological and geological) and result from cumulative impacts of multiple stressors.

Continue reading on the SEHN blog.

Getting the Questions Right

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

With epigenetics on the cover of Time magazine this week, public awareness of the links between our genes, our environment and our health has never been so widespread. Throughout history, breakthroughs in understanding have been largely shaped and guided by the questions we choose to ask. After World War II, the questions most researchers as well as policymakers in the U.S. were asking focused on how to build infrastructures to catalyze the growth of large-scale industrial processes and products – from pesticides to plastics to pharmaceuticals. The underlying assumption was that we could improve on nature without necessarily understanding or abiding by the natural principles that have allowed life to be nourished and sustained for the previous tens of thousands of years.

In just the last generation, however, new and pressing questions have begun to emerge. For example, why – with the vast availability of food products, abundance of sophisticated technologies, and myriad advances in medicine – are more and more people facing chronic diseases and other health problems in the U.S. as well as experiencing a lower quality of life? Why – if being successful means driving bigger cars and having bigger houses – would we be seeing glaciers melting at unprecedented rates and millions of new climate refugees?

Clearly, we can no longer delude ourselves that ‘improving on nature’ is predicated on disregarding it – and instead, ask how can we work within the systems and imitate the processes that have made this planet life-sustaining to date?

Fortunately, there are more and more researchers and others who are asking just that, and perhaps none more energetically than those in the increasingly robust field of green chemistry. Just a couple weeks ago, Paul Anastas, PhD, who is considered by some ‘the father of green chemistry’, was finally appointed Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development at the EPA. For some years now, he and other colleagues – including many of you – have suggested that a number of the major problems we see today, such as the adverse health consequences of toxic exposures and climate change, are in large part due to not asking the right questions in the first place (or perhaps, as some would argue, there were simply too few people in power asking those essential questions). By contrast, those in green chemistry are urging us to ask a set of principled questions before creating new products and technologies, so that, ultimately, the trajectory of our choices can be as biologically and ecologically benign as possible. 

This month CHE is hosting or co-sponsoring three national/international calls that are intended to help us ask better questions so that our pursuits can be more in keeping with the natural systems in which we have evolved and in which future generations will live. The first is a CHE Café Call with Elizabeth Grossman, author of the recently published book Chasing Molecules, which describes how green chemistry has the potential to not only lead to safer products and materials, but reduce the health impacts of climate change. The next is a CHE Partner call on the potential health impacts of chemicals that can disrupt thyroid dysfunction and how chemical policy reform can help address these concerns. And the third call will be co-sponsored with SeaTrust and IGI and feature two colleagues working at the intersection of climate change and health and attended the recent Copenhagen climate change talks. For more information on these calls and how to register, please view the left-hand column on CHE’s home webpage.

I truly look forward to collaborating with you in the New Year in order to hone our capacity to get the questions right as we work towards a healthier tomorrow.