Putting environmental health on the political agenda
March 1997

Improving environmental health isn’t like fixing a pothole. There is nothing for a politician to point to and say, “My party takes credit for that.” Results aren’t visible within an election cycle. Yet environmental health affects us in ways that last longer than the roads we drive on, or the items we purchase with the tax dollars politicians promise to save us.

Everyone agrees in theory that preventing illness is the best way to deal with disease. It’s best for the people who don’t suffer, and for their families. It’s the most cost effective approach in health dollars as well.

Yet preventing illness and protecting health by reducing environmental toxins is not popular with politicians. Committed individuals, determined non-profit organizations, courageous scientists and doctors and a few farsighted politicians and civil servants are the ones who are making sure environmental health issues are recognized and acted on.

How do we get environmental health more firmly on the political agenda? There’s no quick fix. Continuing to develop an understanding about what is at stake, and demonstrating by our words and our actions that environmental health is crucial to all of us, will hopefully lead to an informed population demanding action which politicians can no longer ignore.

Environmental health defines humans as one of the species threatened by environmental degradation

The term environmental health can be used in a variety of ways. Some environmentalists use the term to refer to the health of the environment. But more and more, environmental health is being used to describe the impact of environmental factors on human health.

The growing field of environmental health deals with issues like air pollution and smog, with exposures to recognized toxins, and increasingly with the health effects of low level, long term exposure to chemicals in the environment.

Cancers are increasingly linked to environmental exposures. So are reproductive problems including miscarriages, infertility,and birth defects. Learning and behaviour are affected by environmental exposures, before birth and in childhood. Chemical sensitivity, the inability to tolerate minute exposures to multiple chemicals, is an obvious environmental illness.

Because environmental health doesn’t fall neatly into one category, it often falls between the cracks in political decision making

Environmental health crosses the lines between normally defined political categories. Environmental health issues are environment issues, they are health issues, and they are health promotion issues. They are issues relating to public works (indoor air quality affects employees and public accessibility). They are education issues, as illustrated by the large number of sick school reports, and recent efforts to build and maintain healthier school buildings. They are labour issues, demonstrated by the many occupational illnesses related to exposures in the work environment. Instead of having politicians and bureaucrats who say, “That’s not in MY jurisdiction,” environmental health needs to become a way of thinking when decisions are made in every area which affects human health.

Environmental health is public health

People face environmental health issues in all parts of their lives --at home, at work, and in our neighborhoods. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are elements of environmental health.

Environmental health is a family issue. From the time of conception, a fetus can suffer life long consequences from exposure to minute amounts of harmful chemicals. Babies and children are especially vulnerable to environmental exposures. Because they are smaller, and their immune systems less developed, the impact of exposure to harmful chemicals is usually greater.

Environmental health is a workplace issue. Nova Scotians are well aware of the hundreds of people who became ill at Camp Hill Hospital. Teachers, hairdressers, clerical workers, janitors and lab technicians have all become ill from workplace exposures.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress, most known or probable human carcinogens have been identified through worker illnesses and deaths. This is why the CLC started its innovative and practical “Prevent Cancer Campaign”. The campaign focuses on identifying some of the most toxic materials in use, and providing practical alternatives. British Columbia’s strong Occupational Health and Safety Regulations support efforts to reduce the use of toxic materials. These regulations could be a model for Nova Scotia.

Environmental health is a social justice issue. Low income Nova Scotians, native peoples and racial minorities are often especially hard hit by environmental toxins. Those who do become ill, lack the money to purchase specialized services or products needed to help regain their health.

Environmental health improvements do not have to be costly

Nova Scotia’s new schools built with healthy school guidelines cost no more than other schools. Hospitals which switched from toxic cleaning products to borax and water saved money. School boards have saved money using less toxic cleaning materials. When healthier products cost more in the short term, the costs may well decrease with time, as the demand for less toxic materials increases and healthier practices become more routine. If we count the full costs of our decisions, including the hidden costs like health, productivity, and behaviour problems in children, integrating environmental health into decision making at all levels clearly reduces costs to society.

The barriers to change are lack of vision and political will.

With political will and a willingness to change “the way we have always done things”,major steps can be made to protect environmental health. Putting environmental health on the political agenda requires long term vision. It means assessing risks and benefits by looking at the complete long term costs of our actions. It requires not bowing to the pressure of powerful lobby groups, who imply that change will destroy our economy and way of life.

Understanding the human health effects of environmental pollution can be a very strong force for change. Most people care deeply about their health and the health of their children. When governments at any level make commitments to environmental health, significant changes can be made. The Clean Air Act in the US made a huge difference in air pollution. San Francisco’s Precautionary Principle Ordinance (see below) is having positive effects at many levels.

Changes which are motivated by a concern for human health have a ripple effect in the environment

In his Nature Challenge, David Suzuki has identified the ten most effective ways people can help the environment. Number three is to stop using pesticides. Decreasing pesticide use, a significant danger to to human health, has widespread environmental effects, including reducing groundwater contamination and improving the health and survival of many species, including humanity.

Using healthier products for cleaning, personal care, and construction saves the environment as well as our health. Healthy building materials greatly reduce human exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) VOCs are some of the most toxic ingredients in air pollution. A single tube of caulking may contain more than 500 grams of volatile organic compounds per litre, or as little as 16. These compounds affect indoor air quality and occupant health. They affect the health of workers producing and using the materials, and they affect the overall health of the environment. Multiply this by all the tubes of caulking, gallons of paint, sheets of plywood and pressure treated wood used every day, and the impact on both health and environment are enormous.

In Halifax schools, the use of a cleaning product with an endocrine disruptor as the main ingredient put an estimated three tons of pure endocrine disruptor into the waters off Halifax over the past five years. Endocrine disruptors, or APEOs, are known to mimic, displace or interfere with normal body hormones and have been linked with cancer and reproductive abnormalities that in some cases affect fetuses. This past year this product was replaced with a line of less toxic products. School boards in the Annapolis Valley and South Shore have purchasing healthier cleaning products for a number of years. The European community and many manufacturers have been eliminating use of APEOs for nearly a decade, yet some companies have not made the switch. If the Precautionary Principle were a guiding principle in Nova Scotia, as in San Francisco, perhaps it would not be necessary to struggle to make improvements so slowly, school board by school board, workplace by workplace.

People disabled by environmental illnesses have special needs

While environmental contamination affects the whole earth and all living organisms, some people suffer immediate, debilitating effects from exposure to environmental toxins. People disabled by environmental illnesses are a special needs population which requires recognition, support and accommodation.

Chemical sensitivity is defined as an emerging illness. This means that at this point in time, while there is evidence of the same disease pattern in unconnected groups of people in over a dozen countries, there remain many questions about the mechanism of the disease. Chemical sensitivity is an illness which has been politicized by interest groups with a huge amount at stake: the chemical industry and its sub groups, including manufacturers of pesticides, fragrances, cosmetics and toiletries, and chlorine. Where the tobacco industry spent decades casting doubt that smoking caused cancer, the chemical lobby has focused its efforts on raising doubt about the very existence of chemical sensitivity, discrediting those who suffer from it, and attacking the health professionals and researchers working to advance understanding and treatment.

Canadian and Nova Scotia Human Rights Commissions, as well as human rights commissions in other provinces, recognize people with chemical sensitivity as a group covered by human rights protection. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation recognizes the special housing needs of people with chemical sensitivity.

This recognition still needs to be turned into practical support and accommodation of the chemically sensitive. Public housing in Nova Scotia is one example. There are no smoke-free public housing units in Nova Scotia. Buildings are not designed or maintained with environmental health in mind. Low income people with chemical sensitivities, as well as people with asthma and other respiratory diseases, must either find housing outside the public housing system, or become sicker when they live in public housing, which may be the only housing they can afford.

See also: The Precautionary principle as a Practical Guide

Making the Case for Environmental Health: Resources

Nova Scotia:
Environmental Health Association of NS (EHANS), www.environmentalhealth.ca, www.lesstoxicguide.ca
Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment (CASLE), www.chebucto.ns.ca/Education/CASLE/
Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment (RATE), www.chebucto.ns.ca/Environment/RATE/

National and International
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, www.cape.ca
Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org
Rachel’s Environment and Health News and Rachel’s Precaution Reporter, www.rachel.org
Recommended reading:.
Devra Davis: When Smoke Ran Like Water
Sandra Steingrabber: Living Downstream, A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment; Having Faith , An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood
Thomas Kerns: Environmentally Induced Illnesses: Ethics, Risk Assessment and Human Rights