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Steve Heilig

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Better Safe Than Sorry: A New Era for Environmental Health?

Posted: 06/26/2012 2:57 pm

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In California, Governor Jerry Brown recently moved to restrict the use of some chemicals used as flame retardants, due to their impacts on human health. The resulting scenario is a now-familiar one -- attacks on the science, uncovering of lobbying efforts to short-circuit any new policies that might threaten profits of the industry concerned, and stalemates resulting in a prolongation of the status quo. Some fine reporting in the Chicago Tribune showed how chemical industry flacks have utilized fear to override science-based restrictions. The result? Continued exposure to industrial chemicals and other things research tells us is not good for us.

Similar scenarios play out on many issues, from nuclear power to GMOs to oil drilling and fracking and on and on. The classic modern precedent is tobacco control -- it took decades to institute the kind of policies that objective researchers and health advocates were calling for long ago (and as the California Proposition 29 battle has just shown us again, big money can buy lots of propaganda, which in turn "buys" votes).

It should go without saying that modern chemicals have been a boon in countless ways; but also that their harms should be minimized. Yet ideology and money get in the way of that balance. Paul Craig Roberts, a decidedly non-rabid environmentalist and former Wall Street Journal editor, concludes in a recent post:

propaganda is a form of mind control, and controlled minds are indeed the American predicament. In 1962 Rachel Carson caught Monsanto off guard and thus gained an audience. Today she would not get the same attention. Ready and waiting psy-ops would go into operation to discredit her. I just read an article by an economist who wrote that economists have decided that environmentalism is a religion, in other words, an unscientific belief system that preaches 'religious values.' This demonstrates what little importance economists attribute to external costs and the ability of externalized costs to destroy the productive power of the planet. Thus, the question, "silent spring for us?" is not merely rhetorical. It is real.

Carson's landmark book Silent Spring was published 50 years ago. The "tobacco wars" were just getting underway, many other environmental battles were brewing, and the "climate wars" were not yet conceived (and the climate change deniers have taken their playbook -- and even some of the same propagandists -- right from the tobacco industry).

The crux of the matter in many of these battles is "Is it better to be safe than sorry?" Most people seem to think so. To choose one example of precaution in action, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests proposed medications for both efficacy and safety before they are approved for use. It's also why even more responsible groups are beginning to look at health and environmental issues through a "precautionary" lens (for one new example, see how the AMA has just urged testing of GMOs).

So what to do, if one favors a more rational, science-based approach to chemicals and human health? Here's one contribution: Ten years ago, a group of 50 scientists, clinicians, and advocates concerned about environmental health gathered at the San Francisco Medical Society to discuss ways to advance their fields. The result was a network called the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE). This partnership, which now includes over 4,500 people around the world, seeks to advance environmental health science as it informs and guides decision-making towards improved public health and disease prevention.

CHE's founding 'consensus statement' emphasizes the state of the environmental health science, the necessary public health response, and yes, the importance of taking a precautionary approach. Since we started CHE, the weight of the evidence linking chemicals contributors, including very low dose exposures, to a vast range of chronic diseases and disabilities has increased enormously.

In our new 10-year publication, produced in partnership with the San Francisco Medical Society, some of the leading researchers, doctors and advocates in this arena are featured with user-friendly summaries of some of their work and experiences. To pick a few:

-- World-renowned cancer researcher Dr. Margaret Kripke, appointed to the President's Cancer Panel by George W. Bush, finds she was "naive" to think that we are protected from harmful chemicals by current policies.

-- Some of the many respected authors of new landmark review of chemical impacts on health titled "Large Effects from Low Doses" explains how much smaller exposures than were thought can have lasting and bad effects on us.

-- A breast cancer researcher and surgeon notes how his own work on the chemical BPA has led him to question whether we choose to base our approaches to chemicals on "State of the Art Science or Willful Ignorance."

There's much more, on chemical links to diabetes, autism, fertility problems, nuclear energy lessons from Japan, and how some experts from the United States and other nations are dealing with these issues in ways that begin to make the USA look a bit behind-the-times (and science). There are also some tips on how to live most healthily in this industrial era. The entire edition is here.

If we mark Silent Spring as a spark of the modern environmental movement, we are half a century into finding better balances between profits and true progress. And they are not always in conflict, fortunately -- many more visionary, and successful, businessmen are finding better ways to prosper without harming our world. Is there room for optimism against the tides of money, propaganda, inertia, and cynicism that sometimes seem to rule our age? Many of the authors we've published here think so. And, thankfully, they are the real experts. Hopefully they will be heard, and heeded, more and more as time goes on.

 
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