This picture of earth taken by the Apollo 10 astronauts from their voyage to the moon nearly fifty years ago brings home how close together we all live. This beautiful orb of blue, white, green and brown spins amidst the stark blackness of space. Our environment that supports all life on earth is comprised of the thin layer of air, earth and water on the surface of this spheroid. This environment is where we live, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. Humans have developed great powers to manipulate our environment. Our actions have improved our well-being in a myriad of ways. But, these changes can also change the environment in ways that damage us. As our abilities grow, so do our responsibilities.
Man-made or man-redistributed chemicals released into our environment can benefit in some ways and harm in others. Insecticides can dramatically reduce killers like malaria and greatly increase crop yields to feed all people of world. But there must be care and responsibility in the release of potentially toxic chemicals. The identity and composition of the chemicals introduced into our environment and their properties must not remain secret. Insofar as the effects of these chemicals when released are borne by the public, the chemicals that produce these effects and their properties must be known by the public as well. Freedom of action of any person or company is not absolute. The right of your hand to move ends where my face begins.
Risk and benefits are continually being balanced in many areas. The Food and Drug Administration carefully assesses the benefits and risks of drugs before being introduced. This complex process is at its heart a simple relationship, do the benefits of the drug to the person taking it exceed the risks of taking it? This is simple because the risks and benefits accrue to the same person. With environmental toxicants there are also benefits and risks, however, often the benefits and risks accrue to different people. The benefits of a pesticide flow to the farmer and consumer of the farmer’s produce, as well as to the companies producing the pesticide. The risks impact the people working and living in the vicinity of the farm who do not enjoy the same level of material benefit from the pesticide’s use. Often the true cost of a product introduced into the environment is not fully incorporated into the businesses that produce the chemicals.
The preseveration or creation of jobs is not the final high card that outranks considerations of environmental health. If job creation were of paramount importance, then we should eliminate all restrictions on pollution. This would generate great increases in jobs for medical professionals working in cancer clinics and respiratory therapists as well as special education teachers. This is not to diminish the importance of the wonderful work that these people do. Like firefighters, they will always be essential. But our appreciation for firefighters should not displace our focus on the unsung labor of the fire marshals who work to prevent fires.
To preserve environmental health, all parties must collaborate. Companies producing the chemicals must be responsible in the open evaluation of the possible risks resulting from the chemicals. The broader public must be informed of the facts of risks and benefits. The public must learn that there is no such thing as zero risk or absolute safety. Disinfecting our drinking water saves an enormous number of lives from the risk of water borne infections. The chlorine chemicals used to disinfect drinking water react with organic matter in the water to produce trihalomethane compounds that slightly raise the incidence of cancer. Forums need to be set up for all parties to work together for the benefit of all. As our abilities to mold the environment grows so must our abilities to mold our own actions in responsible ways. We can work together to minimize risk and enhance environmental health through cooperative efforts and responsibility.
Edward D. Levin, Ph.D.
Professor, Duke University Medical Center
Durham, NC 27710, USA