Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#756 - The Year of Precautionary Action, 13-Nov-2002


Here we begin our review of 2002, a year dominated by war and
preparations for war (a subject to which we will return). But
first let's look at some positive developments of 2002.

The principle of precautionary action really took off during
2002. The groundwork was laid in 1998 by the Science and
Environmental Health Network (SEHN) which has worked since then
to embed the principle in everyone's thinking. See RACHEL'S #586
and http://www.sehn.org.

During 2002, it became apparent that SEHN's work has paid huge
dividends. The precautionary principle is catching on. The
principle is simple enough: when there is reasonable suspicion
that harm is occuring or about to occur, we all have a duty to
take action to prevent harm even if some cause-and-effect
relationships have not been proven to a scientific certainty.

The precautionary approach stands in stark contrast to "business
as usual" which dominates our culture and which says, "Do
whatever you want until someone can line up the dead bodies and
prove that harm is occurring." The precautionary principle is
best summed up as "better safe than sorry." As simple as it may
seem, precautionary action represents a completely different
approach to the protection of human and environmental health.

Two new collaborations or campaigns based on precautionary action
developed during 2002.

The first is CHE, the Collaborative on Health and Environment,
created by Michael Lerner and his colleagues at Commonweal in
Bolinas, California. The second is the Environmental Health
Campaign developed by Lois Gibbs and her colleagues at the Center
for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va.

CHE - Collaborative on Health and Environment

In only 9 months, CHE has grown to include more than 350
organizations and individuals committed to improving environment
and health through precautionary action. The only thing CHE
members hold in common is a consensus statement, printed below.
Membership in CHE is free and without obligation.

The CHE web site is being developed now. Soon it will contain
peer-reviewed statements (and scientific documentation)
indicating links between environmental deterioration and asthma,
brain cancer, breast cancer, childhood leukemia, endometriosis,
infertility, learning and behavior disorders, prostate cancer,
and testicular cancer, among others. To see the work in progress,
go to the CHE web site (http://www.cheforhealth.org) and look in
the "Science" section at the bottom of the first page. The
preliminary work is impressive. Here is the CHE consensus
statement. If you agree with it, why not join CHE?

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment Consensus

1. The State of the Science:

The public believes what scientists have long known -- that
environmental factors are important contributors to disease and
developmental disabilities. The understanding of risk varies
widely among individual toxicants and diseases. The developing
human fetus appears to be uniquely at risk of harm from
environmental toxicants, and such damage can be profound and
permanent. Although some linkages are well established and
knowledge about others is emerging, more research is needed
regarding the mechanisms, levels and types of exposures that can
adversely affect health. Research must include the study of
interactions among chemicals and longitudinal studies examining
links between early developmental exposures and health challenges
much later in life, in order to determine what might be making us
sick and how to prevent future illnesses.

2. The Need for a Heightened Public Health Response:

Many cases of some diseases and developmental disabilities could
likely be prevented if exposure to contributory environmental
factors before and after birth were lessened or eliminated. Some
strategies for prevention are well known, but more resources need
to be devoted to prevention research and practice than is
currently the case. Better epidemiological tracking of chronic
diseases and developmental disabilities is needed. More detailed
and widespread monitoring of human exposure to toxicants is
vital. This should include health tracking of conditions,
including disease surveillance, biomonitoring to inform
individuals and healthcare professionals regarding the extent of
actual "body burdens" of known and suspected toxicants, and rapid
response epidemiology where indicated. Innovative, scientifically
reliable methods are needed to study communities with clusters of
diseases versus unaffected populations. Where the weight of
plausible scientific evidence shows that contaminants are likely
to contribute to increased disease, exposures should be reduced
or eliminated. Good, uncompromised science must be the
underpinning of all such efforts.

3. The Importance of a Precautionary Approach

The precautionary principle should become a guiding factor in
public health and environmental policy. The precautionary
principle indicates that, when there is plausible scientific
evidence of significant harm from a proposed or ongoing activity,
preventive or corrective action should be taken to reduce or
eliminate that risk of harm, despite residual scientific
uncertainty about cause and effect relationships. Implementing
the precautionary principle requires assessment of how to
accomplish desired goals, looking for the safest alternatives,
democratic participation, and reversal of the burden of proof.
That is, the proponent of an activity bears the burden of
assessing its safety and of showing that it is both necessary and
the least harmful alternative. Decisions affecting public and
environmental health should be fully participatory.

4. The Need for New Models of Collaboration in Environmental

Efforts in environmental health have too often been fragmented.
Medical, patient, public health and environmental groups and
others sharing some convictions too often have not worked
together towards common goals. Our emerging realization of the
scale of the problem, and the growing body of scientific
information linking plausible cause with effect, encourages a
commensurate response. A new emphasis on a diverse and inclusive
collaboration is essential to successfully reducing public
exposure to environmental toxicants and helping to implement
preventive strategies. Established researchers and
health-affected (or patient/client) groups can collaborate in
conducting important new research. Medical organizations can also
work with health-affected groups towards better approaches to
treatment, services, or interventions. Organizations that are
engaged in the issues of environmental justice, poverty, civil
rights and human rights must be represented and work together as
equal partners. Everyone concerned - health-affected groups,
scientists, health professionals, and environmental organizations
- can serve as resources for each other in collaboration such as
these that will help reduce public exposure to environmental
toxicants and contribute significantly toward creating a
healthier society. [End of consensus statement.]

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) has been
established to address this need, and to take environmental
health efforts into a new era of improved scientific
understanding, cooperation among diverse interests sharing
similar goals, and better policies and preventive efforts.

Partners in CHE's work have only endorsed this consensus
statement and otherwise participate as they deem appropriate.

Contact: The Collaborative on Health and the Environment, c/o
Commonweal, P.O. Box 316, Bolinas, CA 94924. Email:
info@cheforhealth.org or http://www.cheforhealth.org

Campaign for Environmental Health

This campaign centers on a platform statement that was developed
during 2002 with the participation of 80 leaders from grass-roots
and national environmental groups. Here is the most recent
version of the platform:

BE SAFE: Blueprint Ensuring our Safety And Future Economy

In the 21st century, we envision a world where our food, water,
air and land are clean and safe, and our children grow up healthy
and thrive. We can make this world a reality. The tools we bring
to this work are prevention, safety, responsibility and
democracy. Precautionary action is preventive medicine for our
environment and health. We support this approach because it makes
more sense to:

** Prevent pollution instead of spending millions of dollars to
clean up the mess;

** Protect our children, and avoid illness and suffering, rather
than asking how much damage from chemical exposure is acceptable;

** Use renewable, sustainable technologies instead of depleting
our resources; and

** Have responsible parties restore damage, such as permanently
cleaning up drinking water poisoned by toxic dumps, instead of
burdening communities with health threats and expensive,
short-term treatments.

We choose a "better safe than sorry" approach motivated by
caution and prevention. We endorse the common-sense approach
outlined in the Blueprint's four principles listed below.

Heed Early Warnings: Government and industry have a duty to
prevent harm, when there is credible evidence that harm is
occurring or is likely to occur -- even when the exact nature and
full magnitude of the harm is not yet proven.

Put Safety First: Industry and government have a responsibility
to thoroughly study the potential for harm from a new chemical or
technology before it is used -- rather than assume it is harmless
until proven otherwise. We need to ensure it is safe now, instead
of being sorry later. Research to investigate the impacts on
workers and the public should be confirmed by independent third

Participatory Democracy: Precautionary decisions place the
highest priority on protecting health and the environment, and
help develop cleaner technologies and industries. Government and
industry decisions should be based on meaningful citizen input
and mutual respect (or the golden rule), with the highest regard
for those whose health may be affected rather than those with
financial interests. Independent science should inform public
policy, and give the public information to make decisions about
threats and guarantee effective safeguards and enforcement.

Choose the Safest Solution: Decision-making by government,
industry and individuals must evaluate alternatives, and require
use of the safest, technically feasible solution. We support
innovation and promotion of technologies and solutions that
create a healthy environment and economy.

We choose the precautionary approach to protect our health,
environment and economy for ourselves and for future generations.
[End of platform statement.]

The Environmental Health Campaign will unfold over the next two
years. The immediate goal is to have groups and individuals sign
on to the platform and then, if they choose to, participate in
the campaign.

To sign on to the platform, or to get more information about the
campaign, contact Anne Rabe (annerabe@msn.com), or: Environmental
Health Campaign, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, P.O.
Box 6806, Falls Church, Virginia 22040; phone: 703-237-2249;
E-mail: chej@chej.org.

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