26 March 2010

The Day I Became an Environmentalist

This post is my contribution to sustainablog's Pedal-a-Watt Powered Blogathon this weekend. The long-running green blog (and new green shopping site) is publishing for 24 hours straight to raise funds for the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Northeastern Missouri. Go join the fun: read post contributions from around the green blogosphere, leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for some great green prizes, and join in the Tweetchat at #susbppb.

I'm not what you'd call the granola-crunchy type. I don't drive a hybrid, I don't look for organic cotton, I'm not a vegetarian, and most of the time I even leave the water running while I brush my teeth. (I'm trying to stop that.) I am, however, an environmentalist - at least in the sense that I understand that smarter choices lead to healthier, more sustainable lives.

"Environmentalism" has been a big deal in my family for a long time. When I was in high school quite some time ago, my mom would take me to town meetings about the possible siting of a sewage treatment facility in my town, and she told me that trucks with chlorine gas could be driving through the town, and if something happened to one of those trucks it could be very, very bad. It was all very important, but it was also very abstract - these things weren't happening yet, and I never thought anyone would allow a system where an entire town gets wiped out because a truck turned over. The treatment plant got built, but the trucks with the chlorine gas never materialized, and frankly not many people are all that upset about the whole thing anymore.

The light really switched on for me in my first week as "assistant to the Chairman for special projects" in the Department of Pediatrics in what was then called Boston City Hospital. The Chairman was a great guy named Barry Zuckerman. In addition to being this amazing physician and researcher, he just "got it" - he understood that a child's health is affected by dozens of things most doctors can't address.

Barry may be best known for developing the model and co-founding the Reach Out and Read Program, a "nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud." But what did it for me was another project he started with a lawyer named Josh Greenberg called the Family Advocacy Program. It grew into the Medical-Legal Partnership. Josh and Barry told this great story.

Doctors were seeing young children from housing projects show up in their clinics with some pretty nasty asthma. We all know that environmental factors such as allergens and pollution can exacerbate the symptoms of asthma, so in addition to prescribing medicine the doctors would tell the parents about not smoking around the kids, limiting exposure to cats or dogs, and so on. Still, the kids would come back, far too often, with terrible symptoms of asthma. Eventually they discovered that housing projects were carpeted, and those carpets had gotten wet, dirty, and moldy, and the mold was triggering asthmatic attacks.

Of course, a doctor can't prescribe removal of a moldy carpet in a state-administered, federally-funded housing project. And that's where Josh came in. He would navigate the legal bureaucracy to get things done. It was typically a bunch of inside-baseball stuff - it's not like you need to stage a rally decrying the evils of "Big Carpet Corporations" - but it meant a lot to the children and families affected by it.

In truth, the carpet story was just one of many things they did, and I never got the impression that Barry or Josh saw themselves as environmental crusaders. They were child advocates. Barry recruited tons of people to work on dozens of innovative ideas that could improve the health of children - the Child Witness to Violence Project comes to mind. I was really just along for the ride for a few years.

But I never forgot that story about the carpet in the housing project. I understood, in concrete terms, the public health impact of changes to a specific environment. I saw it again in the winter when the hospital's Failure To Thrive Clinic reported children were malnourished and losing weight because low-income parents were using some of the meager food budget to pay for heat.

Why is this story relevant now? Simple. In December the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a determination that greenhouse gasses are a threat to public health, and the agency asserted its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate the emission of those gasses. The EPA has started a fairly gradual process of data collection and is considering next steps. This action has led to an uproar among the largest emitters of GHG's and their supporters.

But it's really not that far-fetched to suggest there are significant (if unintended) public health consequences to the things we do, and it's not all that bad if people outside the traditional health care profession take meaningful steps to address them.

My friends over at sustainablog are going to be at the eco bed & breakfast The Milkweed Mercantile throwing a blogathon to raise money for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. One of the longest-running blogs on environmental issues, sustainablog also recently launched an eco friendly products comparison shopping site, selling everything from green cleaning supplies and organic clothing to energy efficient appliances and composting toilets.

The blogathon will raise funds to support residential learning opportunities at Dancing Rabbit in organic gardening, natural green building, and wind and solar renewable energy design and installation. Interested in checking out Dancing Rabbit for yourself, or taking advantage of some of their educational opportunities? Read more here. And consider making a pledge to support this sustainable community's efforts.

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