Environmental Health: A Social Movement Whose Time Has Come

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Guest Blog by Kate Davies

In 1965, when I was 8 years old, my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was given less than a year to live. By some miracle she survived, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer some 20 years later. She survived this too, but in 1995 she developed a rare T cell lymphoma. She died in 2007, after fighting these three different types of cancer for over forty years.

My mother’s illnesses influenced me profoundly. As a child, I wanted to become a doctor so I could make her better, but as the physicians failed to cure her, I became more interested in how cancer could be prevented. To find out more, I decided to study biochemistry. After completing a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, I became convinced that toxic chemicals and radiation played a role in this life-threatening disease. This realization led me to join the environmental health movement.

I suspect that most people join this social movement because, like me, they know someone with an environmentally-related disease or because they live in a community affected by pollution.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Social activism is often a result of direct, personal experience.  Although scientific and economic information is important, living with or witnessing an environmental health problem firsthand can inspire activism in a way that facts and figures alone don’t.

The leaders of the U.S. environmental health movement are well aware of this. For the past 35 years, they have intentionally drawn attention to the health effects of toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards. By highlighting the effects of pollution on living, breathing people, they are putting a human face on the issues. Whether it’s a cancer survivor talking about how she copes with daily life or a mom talking about her child’s learning disabilities, the stories of real people dealing with real illnesses make environmental issues much more tangible and immediate.

This is the environmental health movement’s unique strategy. Unlike most environmentalists, who emphasize the natural world, the environmental health movement shines a spotlight on human health and well-being. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it affects how issues are framed and communicated to the public.  More importantly, it makes a huge difference in how the public understands them.

Shining a spotlight on human health has made the environmental health movement successful.  Working mostly at the state and local levels, activists have organized countless communities to protest abandoned toxic waste dumps, oppose new hazardous facilities, raise awareness about local disease clusters and draw attention to environmental injustice. The movement has also won numerous legislative victories. Over 900 toxics policies were proposed or enacted in the U.S. between 1990 and 2009, and between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws..

The environmental health movement was born in 1978, just two years before I joined it. As supporters of CHEJ will know, in that year, Lois Gibbs first raised the alarm about the health effects of toxic chemicals leaking from an abandoned waste dump in Love Canal, New York. Organizing her neighbors to demand action, she fought the government and won.

Since then, the environmental health movement has spread across the U.S. and around the globe. Today, about 10,000 environmental health organizations and people are listed on WISER, a worldwide social networking website for sustainability. Almost 4,500 members in about 80 countries and all 50 states form the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. There are now environmental health groups in every major city and state in the U.S.

But despite its success and widespread public support, very little has been written about this social movement. There are many books on the environmental movement, the environmental justice movement and the science of environmental health, but only a handful on the environmental health movement.

My new book, The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement, is an attempt to remedy this situation and give it the recognition it so richly deserves.  In the book, I describe the historical and cultural origins of the U.S. environmental health movement and analyze the organizations and strategies that comprise it today. By examining what has made this movement successful, the book provides insights into what social movements can do to advance positive social change.

Those of us who are part of the environmental health movement do this work because we are called to do it. For us, there is simply no other choice. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”

Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is the author of a new book called The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.

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