New book offers 'prescriptions' for improving environmental impacts on human health

December 31, 2002

The fish you've been adding to your diet to improve your health may actually be bad for you, particularly if you're pregnant or a child. A new book about environmental impacts on human health echoes recent research that eating too much fish that contains mercury can be toxic to your health. But instead of just discussing this worrisome issue, Life Support: The Environment and Human Health provides solutions to environmental health issues like this one and encourages its readers to take positive actions to improve their health.

Life Support, published by The MIT Press, features concise and brief essays that address environmental challenges facing human health today. In addition to topics covered by traditional books on environmental health, Life Support addresses larger environmental threats to public health: climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, habitat loss, war and other military activity, and resource scarcity. Oregon Health & Science University physician Michael McCally, M.D., led the project, wrote several of the chapters and edited the book.

"This book is a prescription for action to both health professionals and communities," said McCally, professor of public health & preventive medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. "We are in a dark time environmentally, but the potential to manage this crisis is there. It's up to us to act."

McCally and 26 physicians and scientists, renowned in their field, cover a wide range of topics, including air and water pollution, population and consumption, ultraviolet radiation, biodiversity loss and vulnerable populations (workers and children). Each essay is a review of recent research with a focus on health consequences.

The book's brevity makes it ideal for busy health professionals and students, at the same time, it is written in an easy-to-understand language for the general public. The author's goal is for the book to serve as a tool to help readers understand the role our surroundings have on our health from authoritative authors who represent renowned institutions. McCally and a colleague at OHSU are using Life Support as a textbook this term for preventive medicine residents.

McCally said there are three key messages that underlie all the essays:

1. The health of human beings is related to the health of the environment.
2. We must protect the environment in order to prevent illness and protect our health.
3. Physicians, students and community members should understand these issues, then make a difference by communicating their concern about environmental hazards to policy-makers.

Life Support is a sequel to the 1993 Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment: A Report by Physicians for Social Responsibility. Critical Condition was a set of warnings about environmental impacts on health; Life Support is the new and improved version with an additional prescription for action, said McCally.

One of the changes in Life Support is a discussion of toxic chemicals. Recent science suggests that some industrial chemicals like dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may be toxic in very small doses. The timing of exposure to these chemicals may be critically important for fetuses and infants.

Another example is mercury, which is a potent neuro-toxin and can damage the brains of infants and children. In many states, including Oregon, efforts are being made to dramatically reduce mercury use and release. OHSU Hospital is one of many hospitals that no longer purchases devices that contain mercury and has exchanged more than 2,500 mercury thermometers from the community with digital thermometers. In addition, the state issued fish consumption advisories for 11 bodies of water, including the entire mainstream of the Willamette River, due to mercury contamination.

" In the last 10 years we've changed the whole way we look at toxic chemicals. We use to say it [chemical] was bad if it caused cancer. Now there are other conditions that chemicals can cause that we need to consider when determining toxicity, such as developmental disorders of brain function and reproduction," said McCally.

Some of the calls to action include: weighing the benefits against the costs of the next human activity that may threaten the ozone layer; health care providers can support ongoing efforts to advocate for prevention of exposures to cancer-causing agents wherever possible; and to protect the health of populations, we must develop systems of food, energy and industrial production that can be sustained over generations.

One such generation is that of McCally's granddaughter, Micah McCally. He even dedicated the book to her and her generation, with the hope that current efforts to pass along a healthy planet will succeed.
-end-


Oregon Health & Science University

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