Environmental Injustice: Thoughts for Earth Day 2009

Earth Day 2009 approaches. In preparation, I wanted to share some thoughts old and new, and a mini-book review.

Two years ago, I co-authored with Deirdre Imus a paper in Explore titled, “Environmental Injustice: Children’s Health Disparities and the Role of the Environment.”

Our conclusion then was as follows:

“Children cannot protect themselves nor can they clean up an environment our society has created. Independently, they have no political or economic voice. It is our responsibility to insure that their environment is safe. A compassionate and successful society will invest its assets in the good health of its children—all of its children. Addressing these environmental inequities will require a substantial resource shift and a commitment from government, industry, and citizens. A paradigm shift directing our focus toward preventing disease is urgently needed. We must adopt a new way of looking at children’s health and cannot delay in addressing the environmental inequalities that are robbing our society of its future.”

It does seem we may finally have government leadership that shares these values. How this all plays out remains to be seen. Meanwhile, below is a piece I wrote for the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center’s Spring newsletter, sort of a riff on our aforementioned article. The focus is on a truly important book, a modern-day “Silent Spring.”—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for their children.”  – German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So begins Philip and Alice Shabecoff’s sober and illuminating call-to-arms, Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children (Random House 2008). As I read about the numerous environmental plagues visited on children in our country, I am reminded of how far we still must go to address the environmental injustices done to our most vulnerable. Who is speaking for those with no voice? These authors do so loudly and boldly, urging us to address the environmental factors implicated in epidemic children’s health disorders such as autism, asthma, and cancer.

While the full text is a must-read for anyone interested in children’s health and the environment, perhaps the most important chapter covers the concept of justice. The Shabecoffs detail the steps we must take as a society to correct our course. They wisely note that it is the responsibility of all – parents, communities, industries, scientists, and politicians – to right these wrongs. Presciently written prior to the 2008 Presidential election, they comment, “The American people will have to find a way to place into office politicians who will act for the public good, will act to protect our children.”   

Have we finally done so? Perhaps. In his inaugural address, his first public statement as President, Barack Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” Why is this so important? This decade to date has witnessed a catastrophic erosion in public trust in our institutions. What has undone our economic state has also undermined our health care system. Rampant conflicts of interest, lack of oversight, loss of confidence. Science has been kidnapped by dogma. The CDC, EPA and FDA have all been victims of politicization of scientific policies, working not to serve the best interests of our children but of lobbyists and industries. Formaldehyde in FEMA trailers? Mercury in high-fructose corn syrup? Lead in toys? And so on, ad nauseam.

If President Obama is to make good on this promise, he must make protecting our children’s health an absolute priority. Re-establishing trust in our scientific and public health institutions would be a good start. Let us take this time of year, celebrating our Earth, to make this pledge – for our children.

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