October 27, 2009
There aren’t exactly celebrities in the field of public health, but a few of the biggest names are in Atlanta this week for the National Environmental Public Health Conference (NEPHC). For one, Thomas Frieden, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control, got a rock star reception when he addressed the 1,100 conference attendees primarily from academia, nonprofit organizations and government entities on Monday.
Frieden, formerly the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health, was recently appointed by the Obama administration to head the CDC, based on his successes in New York. Menu labeling laws, trans fat bans, increased cigarette taxes and smoke-free bars and restaurants all were enacted on his watch (with the support of his former boss Mayor Mike Bloomberg, himself a champion of public health). In Frieden, it’s clear we have not only an advocate for environmental health, but also a skillful leader who understands the policy process and the best strategies for achieving meaningful changes.
Other representatives from federal agencies spoke about their efforts to reduce potentially harmful chemical exposures in food, air and water. The deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, spoke of her desire for a more regional food system and improved food safety and school nutrition standards. She even mentioned the agency’s commitment to organic produce, showcased at an organic garden at the USDA headquarters in Washington. Hmmm, I wonder if USDA got the same backlash from the pesticide industry that Michelle Obama received after planting her organic garden at the White House?
Jon Gant, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, discussed his agency’s Healthy Homes initiative to reduce health disparities, particularly in urban homes. Allergens from mold and pests are attributable to 5 million cases of asthma per year, he said. Back home in Baltimore, a partnership between the city health department and JHSPH is targeting families with children at risk for asthma to reduce these risks from indoor air. At a separate session, a doctoral student from JHSPH discussed this project. The most shocking tidbit from this talk? That 84 percent of the Baltimore City family homes evaluated in this project had allergen levels comparable to rodent research facilities. Yuck!
Another NEPHC speaker, Amory Lovins, may not be a household name, but he gave an engaging and insightful presentation about the post-carbon economy. As a chief scientist, cofounder and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins said it was a myth that improving energy efficiency and combating climate change is cost-prohibitive. He made examples of large companies like IBM and BP who have saved billions by increasing efficiency. On a wider scale, Lovins said there is much opportunity to greatly reduce U.S. oil use (check out oilendgame.com for his plan to reduce oil use completely by 2040).
Technological advances in cars made from much lighter (and more crash resistant) materials can greatly reduce the vehicle’s weight and fuel needs. In combination, plug-in hybrids that actually give power back to the grid and the use of advanced cellulosic biofuels can be means to reduce U.S. reliance on petroleum. Lovins also spoke of aligning business and consumer interests so that energy providers can make money by helping to conserve energy, not just selling as much as they can.
Preparing for a sustainable future given our nation’s enormous energy challenges will surely require a network of technologies and practices, not just one miraculous solution. While Lovins made it sound simple to reduce our reliance on oil given the commercialization of existing technologies, the hard part will be shifting industry, government and consumers to a new way of powering America.