03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

First Do No Harm: Connecting The Dots Between Environmentalism And Health Care Reform

What makes us sick?  Who makes us sick? If we pass laws to protect
ourselves from disease and illness caused by human activity, is it up
to us, as individuals, to pay for the consequences when those laws fail
due to a lack of compliance or a failure of the government to enforce.

If we are stricken with mercury poisoning, cancer, heart disease, retardation, birth defects, lung disease, asthma
or any of the hundreds of other illnesses caused by toxics in
our environment, should we have to go bankrupt or decline treatment because
there is no health care available to us? If we live in poverty and
industry uses our neighborhoods to site their most toxic operations, how do we pay for the illness those operations cause?

Does our concept of personal responsibility stop when it comes to corporate behavior?  Corporations enjoy “personhood
under the law, but they are “persons” wreaking havoc on our natural
systems, our bodies, our brains and all of the essentials we need to
sustain life.  Poisons and pathogens get into our air, water and food
because keeping them out of our farming and manufacturing process
reduces profits.    All of these things make us ill.  We have fought
hard to pass laws to protect our communities from this harm, but they
have been ineffective in reducing exposure sufficiently to keep us
healthy.  The spread of harmful substances is fast and wide.  The
enforcement of laws protecting us is slow and narrow.

Our government tolerates a system of laws and regulation that is effective only to the extent that budget priorities allow enforcement.
Polluters lobby for and gain power in government and further diminish
the resources and momentum for passing and enforcing laws to keep us
safe and healthy.  Yet we find ourselves debating whether or not the
government has a role in ensuring that reasonably priced health care is
available to all Americans.  This is a system absurdly out of
balance.   We subsidize the activities that cause widespread disease
and illness.  We tolerate a health care system that financially
penalizes the victims of this injustice.  What’s wrong with this

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell recently published a visionary work called “A Common Agenda For Health and the Environment – Goals for the Next Generation and Steps to Get There.“   The Common Agenda proposes six “Generational Goals
that we should be working toward as our legacy for a better, more
sustainable and rational way of living.   The first of these goals is “Safe and Healthy People.”  The three objectives of this goal are

  • Environmental, Social and Economic Conditions to Promote Health and Safety;
  • Food Production and Distribution to Promote Health;
  • A Comprehensive Health System Emphasizing Primary Prevention and Health Promotion.

Looking at the collective value of blending these issues as a
coordinated set of objectives aspiring to a common goal provides us
with a framework to understand the integral nature of health care
reform and environmental protection.

Mainstream media coverage of the health care debate tends to be
partisan and sensationalistic.  The themes promoted by the right wing
echo chamber of extremist television and radio commentators
are covered as if they somehow represented a critical mass of public
opinion instead of the poorly reasoned ideological initiatives of 
fringe elements.  This distorted framing of the issue does
a disservice to us all and leaves very little room in the public debate
for the more forward thinking, sometimes nuanced, consideration of how
health, the environment, our food supplies, our water and our general
economic conditions impact our ability to build a safe, healthy society
that offers fair access to essential resources and services that will
value human health and protect the commons.

Environmental advocacy and health care reform are two dimensions of
a single issue.  The time is right to de-compartmentalize our thinking
about these issues and stand together in support of mutual goals.

Clean Water Action was established to pass the Clean Water Act
but quickly became as much a public health organization as an
environmental organization.   Our work on protecting water from
pollutants, pathogens, heavy metals, dioxin, Bishpenol-A and all other
contaminants is done in support of the goal of preventing disease and
illness.  We join voices with those who would advocate a way to care
for people who live in a world where illness and disease caused by a
lack of care in how we conduct ourselves affects us all regardless of
social class or economic status.  We all need protection and treatment.