Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Broadening the context part 2: historicizing environmental regulation

(Part 1 is here.)

We need a coherent, cohesive environmental protection strategy without loopholes, period.

I have written before about the utterly astonishing fact that, in those regularly mailed surveys that are actually thinly disguised pleas for money, the Democratic party does not list climate change as one of the top fifteen issues they ask voters to rank in order of importance.  And, despite some promising verbiage at whitehouse.gov expressing commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, etc., the Obama administration seems loath to step into the fray—which, thanks to the right-wing ramp-up to 2012, is becoming more frayed by the minute.

I can understand why politicians are toying with the environment. Their wanton disregard for truth in this area is both reprehensible and deeply stupid, but they appear to be in politics to win a game, not effect positive change.  What is harder to understand is why the rest of us haven’t taken to the streets, Egypt-style.

In a fit of pique one day I told a scientist friend of mine that if we were really serious about reducing disease burden, we’d divert funding from research into disease causes and treatment and into cleaning the environment and lifting socio-economic and educational status (the two best predictors of health—the higher, the healthier). Her response was brusque, pragmatic and discouraging: “Yeah, but that’s not going to happen.”

Sorry, but that's just not a good enough response.

The evidence that our health problems are very much tied to the environment is undeniable and overwhelming. The inconvenient truth is that we’re wasting our efforts trying to understand and treat cancer, asthma, and a host of other chronic human illnesses if we do not stop poisoning the environment.  To take just one example of the close connection between human health and toxins in our surroundings: in the Houston Ship Channel, an area heavily contaminated by petrochemical plants, exposure to air pollution increases cancer risk by a factor of 1000. Cases of leukemia and lymphoma are twice as high among children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel as those living outside the two-mile radius*.  Another example is the extraordinary rise in the incidence of serious birth defects and untreatable neurological diseases in China, which is forcing that rapaciously industrial country to set tougher pollution standards.

Indeed, for more than two centuries, analysis of disease trends has shown that the environment is the primary determinant of the overall state of health of any population.  One of the clearest early statements on the paramount importance of the environment was written by Johann Peter Frank in Germany in 1790 (Akademische Rede vom Volkselend als der Mutter der Krankheiten).  In 1842, Edwin Chadwick wrote his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, concluding that “the primary and most important measures and at the same time the most practical, and within the recognized providence of public administration, are drainage, the removal of all refuse from habitations, streets, and roads, and the improvement of the supplies of water.”  We can go back even farther, to 1273 (yes, 1273), when the earliest known smoke abatement law was codified to prohibit the use of coal as detrimental to health.

It’s now 2011, seven hundred and thirty-eight years later, and we’re still debating whether air pollution from coal is a bad thing?  It strains the credulity.

Clearly, this isn’t about the science or the facts or debates over the facts. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

A final thought.  Environmental quality is inseparable from health, and air quality is inseparable from water quality, from energy policy, from mining policy, from agricultural policy, and so on, down the line. An article in the New York Times last year informed us that the EPA has had to shelve over 1500 legal actions against companies for polluting thanks to an ambiguity in the wording of the Clean Water Act (regarding “navigable waters”), which apparently leaves 45% of corporate polluters outside of regulatory reach.  This is simply outrageous, and I do not use that word lightly. We’re dying from a thousand cuts, a million cuts... a million toxic molecules, all acting in concert. 

Forget about what’s going to happen to the children; the crisis is here, now.

If you are so inclined, please write to the EPA or to the White House or to your representatives in Congress and the Senate. Also, please check out 350.org, Bill McKibben's global movement to persuade governments around the world to take climate change seriously.  If a mass movement can topple a dictator, there is yet hope.


  1. More people need to read what you are writing and if i have any say in it...they will. am forwarding your post ( i don't facebook or blog- am an old lady) to as many of my friends and family as i can...thank you for your thoughtful research and compelling observations. pamela

  2. Thank you, Pamela. It is very motivating to know that someone is reading and engaging with these thoughts.