Act Now: Become an Environmental Health Activist

08/03/2010 12:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Alison Rose Levy Health, food and environmental journalist; radio host, Progressive Radio Network

I'm a Health Maven, both an agent and a product of the self-help movement. But something funny happened on the way to transforming the world through transforming ourselves. A bunch of people who didn't share our values got there first. Unfortunately, our compassion and positive intentions did not convey themselves to the hearts of corporate executives such that they dashed off their yachts to call back their lobbyists. Nor did they elect to self-regulate to keep our children and planet safe. We did yoga, they got busy donating to candidates, electing officials and changing laws and regulatory policies. As we looked within, the outer world changed.

Now the laws that most of us assume are there to protect us, our children, our food, our environment, even our drinking water--no longer exist. With gas drilling contaminating water with toxic chemicals nationwide, and 80,000 untested chemicals in use for over three decades, votes in Congress (and the New York State legislature) this week are long overdue. And this is our last opportunity before new legislatures in January to act.

Will health conscious people step up to become Health Activists to support a triad of bills up this week? Or will we remain Health Ostriches, making our personal choices, without making sure that our elected officials enact laws that protect our health?

"We react after the fact when the damage is done. Rather than preventing exposure that could lead to harm, we're way behind the 8-ball," says Richard Denison, Ph.D, Senior Scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF.)"We're all being exposed in ways we don't understand. We're not monitoring and tracking. What we've learned is that people around the globe are being exposed to hundreds of chemicals, many of which we know from lab studies with animals are linked to serious chronic diseases. Yet that understanding is coming too late."

Preventive health, anyone?

The Safe Chemicals Act would require chemical producers to prove safety, targeting toxic chemicals which migrate into our products, foods, earth, air and drinking water. The CLEAR Act would, among other things, force gas companies to reveal the toxic chemicals used in a process called "fracking," that has contaminated water nationwide, following an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act, orchestrated by Dick Cheney. As we speak, supporters of a ban on gas drilling in New York State are urging State legislators to bring a moratorium to the floor for a vote.

It's hard to see, taste, or smell these hidden chemicals so it's easy to play Health Ostrich. But many people experience their health impact. Even the 2010 President's Cancer Panel, consisting of Bush appointees, concluded that these chemicals are a major unaddressed causal factor in cancer. Yet we lack research, sound toxicological models, public health driven safety policies, and treatments to address them.

"In our research and policy framework, we're not applying what we know about cellular biology," says Denison. The ongoing and cumulative effects of the toxins alters cellular pathways that cascade down to affect many functional areas of the body.

The reality is that we and our children are Health Guinea Pigs, participants in an ongoing experiment in to the health consequences of unregulated, untested and unavoidable toxic exposures.

Will making green purchases help? Slightly, but not significantly.

"You can't solve this problem on an individual basis," says Denison. "Our use of chemicals, is so ubiquitous and extensive -- there's no "away" you can go to -- to avoid having toxic and persistent chemicals in your body. Case in point: High levels of flame retardants show up in arctic residents, even though they don't come near any products that contain them."

Current laws give a higher priority to protecting so-called trade secrets than they do public health, thus allowing chemical producers and oil and gas companies to conceal the chemicals they use, even when these chemicals confer serious health risks.

"The overbroad secrecy provisions in current law threaten public health," says Kenneth Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Because companies are allowed to conceal chemical data, "Researchers and the public simply do not know how many of those chemicals are present in our bodies and in newborns," says Cook. "The more we look for them, the more we find them. Toxic chemicals are found in the placentas of newborns. Industrial chemicals that cross the placenta to contaminate a developing child should be placed at the top of EPA's to-do list. Few factors translate to greater risk to health."

And when newborns begin life already pre-poisoned, it's obvious that personal choice can readily be trumped by health risks we allow as a society.

That's why our good intentions won't be enough to pass laws that affect our health and our children's. But clicking a link, or making a phone call to your Senator today -- right now -- just might help. There are three calls you can make this week if you want to become a Health Activist.

To empower the EPA to require industry to prove chemical safety, follow links at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Act to clean up the Gulf, and close the Halliburton loophole, and require gas companies to reveal the nearly 600 hundred toxic chemicals they use nationwide.

Act to require environmental studies in New York, before allowing gas drilling with toxic chemicals that contaminate aquifers and the water supply.
Update:The New York Senate passed a temporary moratorium on drilling through May 15, 2011 with a vote of 48- ayes, 9- nays. Thanks to all the grassrooters who dedicated themselves to protect New York's water.
For ongoing health and environmental actions, news, and science, sign up for my free weekly ezine at You can listen to my radio interview with Safer Chemical's Andy Igrejas here.