The Science Behind Unconventional Connections

What do contaminants in cord blood and climate change have in common? One answer: fossil fuels. Last week, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology showed how 87 commonly found chemicals pass efficiently from mother to fetus during pregnancy, and a vast majority of those chemicals are derived from petroleum. Last month, at the UN climate change talks in Cancun, side events sponsored by NGOs highlighted rising health concerns for children and other vulnerable populations related to climate change. Climate change, as scientists have demonstrated repeatedly, has in large part been catalyzed by the widespread development and use of petrochemicals and their by products, which are fast changing the delicate balance of our earth’s systems. In other words, fossil fuels are us, inside and out – with huge economic and social consequences for human and ecological health.

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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.

Collaboration in the Context of Complexity

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

This month CHE is featuring two Partner calls focused on systems approaches to improving health and well-being (see http://www.healthandenvironment.org). The first CHE Partner call is “Ecological Intelligence: A Conversation with Daniel Goleman” to be held on June 12th. Dan has written a number of bestselling books on different expressions of intelligence, and his most recent book, Ecological Intelligence, highlights the need for what he calls “radical transparency” in the marketplace so that we can make informed and smarter consumer choices – choices that truly support our long-term health and that of the planet.

The second CHE Partner call is “A Common Agenda for Health and the Environment: Goals for the Next Generation and Steps to Get There” to be held on June 23rd. “A Common Agenda” differs distinctly from “Ecological Intelligence” on a number of counts. For example, “Ecological Intelligence” focuses primarily on the consumer and why what we buy and manufacture often has far-flung negative consequences on human and ecological health, while “A Common Agenda”, articulates specific generational goals – from “vibrant communities” to “green jobs” to “ecosystem protection” – that were developed by over 100 leaders in diverse sectors along with concrete steps to reach these goals.

Both documents, however, point fundamentally to the same issue: We must collaborate across sectors and among diverse constituencies in order to effectively address the multiple factors that influence our health and future; if we stay in our respective silos, as is still the predominate modus operandi in academia, government, industry and even the nonprofit world, we do so to our collective peril. Cultivating our capacity to take appropriate, life-affirming actions in the face of complexity is essential in today’s world. This means respecting and relying on each other’s areas of expertise and abilities as well as working to clarify and understand inevitable differences in the assumptions, expectations and priorities we each hold.

This kind of collaboration in the context of complexity is at the heart of CHE’s work. In the coming months, we intend to deepen our exploration of systems biology, ecological health and preventive interventions as these apply in very concrete ways to enhancing human health for generations to come.

Along these lines, CHE is establishing a discussion group on environmental factors linked to “metabolic syndrome,” a cluster of conditions that elevate a person’s risk of developing certain chronic diseases such heart disease, stroke and diabetes. We will certainly need both “ecological intelligence” and “a common agenda” in order to achieve our collective goal of a healthy world to leave our children and theirs. We hope you will join us on these upcoming CHE Partner calls and in other future activities.

A Report on the 2006 National CHE Conference

CHE Partner Bobbi Kimball, RN, MBA
Bolinas, California

A Quiet Environmental Revolution Begins in Bolinas 

The first time I visited Commonweal was in the mid 70s when a friend took me to see a demonstration organic garden and new pioneering work in biofeedback.  The second time I visited Commonweal was in the early-80’s to learn more about the Cancer Self Help Program and Michael Lerner’s seminal research on alternative therapies. Two years ago I joined Commonweal’s Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), a growing partnership of over 2300 individuals and organizations who share the common goal of improving human health by reducing exposure to toxicants in our bodies and the environment.

CHE’s purpose is to bring people together to further constructive debate and cooperative efforts, to foster productive action and to disseminate the best scientific information about these concerns.  That purpose was significantly advanced last Friday at CHE’s national conference in San Francisco.  The opening presentations by Phil Lee, MD, and Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, stretched the minds and hearts of around 200 participants from across the US and even the European Union.  They offered new ways to consider prevention, causation and ecological health as a complex system with significant impacts on health and disease. They spoke to the urgent need to bridge and integrate public health and the science of medicine. Presenting new data on biomonitoring, there was a realization that the environment is not just “out there” surrounding us, it is truly “within us” as living beings.  As a young girl, I grew up with my father’s passion for his career as an environmental scientist.  I was called to become a nurse, a healer.  At the conference, I sat with the realization that our separate journeys had converged in a most profound way.

The rest of the day was filled with 20 concise and fact-filled presentations from renowned scientists, physicians, policy makers and consumer advocates.  The relationship and measurable impact of toxins and chemicals present in our environment to the common diseases of asthma, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes were presented again and again. How much evidence do we need to take action? Efficiently and humorously moderated by Steve Heilig, the co-presentations pairing solid scientific data by lead researchers with the work of articulate and passionate consumer advocates on the topics of infertility, autism, Parkinson’s and air pollution’s effects on health were riveting.  When Michael Lerner closed the conference promptly at 6pm, the room was still full and the audience reluctant to leave.  

Rarely have I been to a conference that included such a broad cross section of scientists, health professionals, community organizations, health affected individuals and groups, government and public health representatives, funders and policy makers.  The knowledge that we are all working on these issues from different perspectives but in a collaborative fashion was powerful.  CHE has created a real working partnership that is producing amazing results.  The revolution to improve human health by reducing exposure to toxicants in our bodies and the environment has begun…and it started at Commonweal in Bolinas.

Join CHE at www.HealthandEnvironment.org.  It is free and your participation can be passive or as active as you desire.  You can easily stay informed online or choose to participate in monthly conference calls or join a working group.