Health Education: The Challenge to Keep Pace

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Excerpts from a speech delivered to the Rotary Club of the West End, Atlanta Georgia, August 1997, by HEAL Governing Board member Lydia C. Jones

Listen, if you will, to reports received by HEAL.

  • A chemist in his early 40's was researching potential commercial uses of formaldehyde for a major company in California when he began experiencing health problems at work. This very bright researcher with a Ph.D. and a promising future eventually received advice from his doctor to avoid any further exposures to formaldehyde, and he was forced to leave his chosen field completely.
  • A physician who was at one time a well-respected anesthesiologist is now unable to practice due to sensitivity to workplace chemicals – including anesthetics.
  • A group of babies in Cleveland became very ill (some even died) from disease-causing mold after water damage in their homes.
  • A real estate executive in Florida was disabled after a pesticide application in her office.
  • A teacher in NY State was forced into early retirement for health reasons after building renovations at her school.
  • A group of scientists employed by the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington were apparently effected by indoor air contaminants in their workplace.

You've all probably heard or read about similar accounts to these I've just shared, but you may not have heard about the following:

  • Two "would-be entrepreneurs" went door-to-door in Mississippi selling pest control services. According to Hagan Thompson of the EPA, not only did the two spray homes—inside—of every economic strata, they also sold "the stuff in every imaginable type of container—[like] milk jugs and whiskey bottles – from the back of their truck so that people could apply it themselves."

    The substance they were selling: methyl parathion, a highly toxic nerve poison that's restricted by law to outdoor agricultural uses in the United States. It's an economically important pesticide that's used by growers of cotton, soybeans, field corn, peaches, wheat, barley and rice. Outdoors, methyl parathion breaks down rather quickly in sunlight, but indoors it can persist for months or even years. In humans it's readily absorbed through the skin and by inhalation, as well as by ingestion.

    Initially, the State Agriculture Department began an investigation into unlicensed pesticide applicator violations. As word began to spread about the story, however, federal, state and local agencies mobilized their efforts to attack the problem. It was a massive effort or H-U-G-E, as my son would say. ... Total cost for this incident, including relocations, decontaminations, building rehabilitation, medical tests and other costs: Estimated at more than $122 million (according to an account of this that appeared just this week in the NY Times).

    Who pays? Taxpayers. And yes, if you say that's pocket change for the nation's 115 million or so individual taxpayers, I agree. But, let's keep a taxpayer tab running for a few more minutes.

  • One final story: A young child walked innocently along a road in Tanzania, Africa last year. The child stopped, picked up an opened can and drank from it. The child died before onlookers could get him to a nearby medical facility. Speculation is that the can contained a pesticide in use by farmers in this economically poor region.

    Would more education have made a difference in these instances? Logically we can assume that the chemist, the physician, the teacher, the real estate executive, employees of EPA in Washington, parents of affected children, and certainly residents in Mississippi might have made different choices had they been informed about potential health effects of exposures. Furthermore, badly needed tax dollars could have been saved, the workload of over-burdened healthcare providers and facilities could have been eased, contributions to society in general from healthy workers could have continued without disruption, and most importantly: precious lives spared.

Let's take a minute to test our basic knowledge of health and exposure issues.

Q: How many chemical compounds are registered with the government for commercial use?
A: 70,000 and many of them have been introduced since WWII.

Q: How many pounds of toxic chemicals went into our environment in 1995 and what cleanup would cost?
A: According to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, *2.2 billion pounds* of toxic chemicals went into our air, water and soil in 1995, and we can only hope that it's all cleaned up some day, some how and at some cost. Even if we estimated an average cost of $1.00 per pound, $2.2 billion gets my attention quickly and that would be just for pollution created in 1995 – not including the "old" pollution that still awaits cleanup.

Q: How many occupational illnesses occur each year and at what cost?
A: 862, 200 illnesses are estimated to occur annually in the civilian workforce at a cost of *$26 billion*.

Q: How much asthma costs each year?
A: *$6.1 billion* for in-facility medical care and lost days from work and school. Asthma attacks have many environmental triggers, including chemical pollutants.

Q: How much productivity we lose each year to migraine headaches?
A: Estimates range from *$1.2 to $17.2 billion*. Migraine attacks can be initiated by various innocent- seeming environmental triggers – including perfume.

Q: How much we have spent searching for the cause of our Gulf War veterans' illnesses?
A: *$37 million* and we still aren't sure what caused the problem, and we have no definitive treatment plan.

Now, exactly where is that pocket change referred to earlier … or maybe we should ask ourselves "what's our total tab for being so blissfully uninformed"? Well, just from these few examples, the tab per taxpayer is now approaching *$370 -- or a total of $42.5 billion* annually.

We should not, however, lose sight of the major benefits that society has derived from chemicals. Chlorine, for example, is an effective sanitizer of public water supplies and we could all collectively shudder at the thought of what our lives would be like today without it. Pesticides have made large-scale agriculture possible to an extent undreamed of by our grandparents. Before AIDS, loss of life numbers due to infectious diseases were reduced to miraculously low levels as a result of the availability of antibiotics.

On the other hand, a major concern exists that chlorine used in drinking water can produce unwanted harmful by-products in the water supply. Pesticides are poisonous by design, some persist in the environment years after they were applied, and pests are becoming resistant to them at rates that in some ways mirror antibiotic resistance in microorganisms. And, there are alarming reports that some disease-causing microorganisms have become resistant to even our most powerful antibiotics as a result of overuse, and researchers say that effective antibiotics to replace the ones we have , are years away from availability.

So, where are we? Have we been naïve about the immediate benefits of a quick solution to solve problems without consideration of long-term effects on the environment and human health? Are we concurrently addressing the question of micro-organism resistance to antibiotics in humans and pesticide resistance in pests? How much more are we willing to spend on medical treatment and cleanup, rather than on prevention, education and research?

Clearly, questions abound, and as we look to the 21st century our most critical challenge is how to provide comprehensive health education regarding environmental exposures that keeps pace with society's environmental choices.

HEAL members affirm the challenge for health education to keep pace. The Human Ecology Action League, a nonprofit organization founded in 1977, serves those who are concerned about environmental exposures that are hazardous to human health by providing information, encouraging research and fostering perspective, understanding and communication.

Numerous HEAL programs provide both thoroughly researched and documented current information about the health effects of environmental exposure. Topics include how to identify and avoid exposures, how to cope after exposure, and current research findings.