October 30, 2009

The Usual…and Not So Usual Suspects

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Upon leaving the 2009 National Environmental Public Health Conference, one of the important themes that will stay with me is the need to routinely branch out to other disciplines to solve public health problems. For example, city planners, architects and transportation departments need to be at the table with public health professionals more often to address human health problems impacted by the built environment. (This concept is one being embraced by CLF—for one, the center is working with Baltimore planners on the city’s food policy task force to improve healthy food availability.)

As Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development said, we need to learn to speak each others’ language. On the local level, this collaboration is even more important. When local zoning departments work together with environment and public health offices to maximize natural resources and engage in smarter design of our roads and buildings, it makes it easier for the feds to do so, she said.

Another topic which intrigued me is the emerging field of green chemistry. Green chemistry is the design of chemical products that reduces or eliminates hazardous substances, and considers the cradle-to-cradle lifecycle of the product. Listening to Michael Wilson, of UC Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, detail the unfathomable quantities of waste we produce was certainly unsettling. His statistic of two million plastic bottles discarded every 5 seconds in the United States reminded me of The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. However, as Wilson pointed out, unintended consequences can arise when supposedly safer alternatives are not properly evaluated. In California, it seemed like a good idea in the late 1990s to phase out brake cleaners with hazardous materials, but the replacement contained a dangerous hexane component that was responsible for neurological disease in automotive workers.

While this extreme example shows the danger of switching to a supposedly less toxic chemical without adequate information, the overall message the conference left behind was one of optimism. Innovations in chemistry and renewable energy technologies are promising, as is the emerging interest of the public and business in green technology. And, as the 2009 National Environmental Public Health Conference showed, there is a committed cadre of environmental health professionals on the job, working to protect the health of current and future generations.

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