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Speakers Present a Strategy for Sustainability

By Eddy Ball
August 2009

Joel Tickner, Sc.D.
In conventional risk assessment, Tickner observed, "We wait and we wait and we wait for a very high level of evidence, and in that time we're not acting." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

David Kriebel, Sc.D.
"What we're trying to do is shift the focus of interest," Kriebel explained, "away from ‘are we quantifying the risk correctly' to ‘are there alternatives' and ‘is there enough evidence to support a shift'" from a potentially harmful chemical to an alternative. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Craig Slatin, Sc.D.
Slatin, who is the author of a book on labor and the Superfund, focused on the need for broad-based alliances. "It has to be a democratic process [when economic change is involved]," he argued, "if you want it to be sustainable." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gleta Carswell and Sara Mishamandani
The presentation drew people from throughout the Institute, including NIEHS Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group Biologist Gleta Carswell, left, and Summers of Discovery Intern Sara Mishamandani. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

According to a team of public health scientists speaking at NIEHS on July 21, broad-based acceptance of sustainability as a guiding principle for science, economics and society will require changes in attitudes about evaluation of risk from chemicals, an acceptance of scientific uncertainty, and what might seem to be unlikely partnerships. The three University of Massachusetts Lowell professors presented their arguments during a seminar on "Sustainable Production: A Path Toward Disease Prevention and Health Promotion" hosted by NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

The presenters are members of the trans-disciplinary Lowell Center for Sustainable Production ( Exit NIEHS, which was established in 1995 to develop practical solutions to environmental and health problems - helping to advance changes that lead to a safer, more secure and sustainable planet. Speaking about the Center's agenda and challenges were Project Director and Associate Professor of Community Health and Sustainability Joel Tickner, Sc.D.; Chair of the Department of Work Environment David Kriebel, Sc.D.; and NIEHS grantee and Chair of the Department of Community Health and Sustainability Craig Slatin, Sc.D.

In the course of their work, scholars at the Center have challenged the conventional scientific understanding of causality that they call "the reactionary principle." They have taken science out of the lab to users of chemicals, developed a broad-based social, participatory process for engaging people about the potential dangers of chemical exposures, and they have assumed responsibility for coming up with answers and a wide range of viable alternatives for potentially hazardous chemicals.

Tickner opened the "tag-team" presentation with a discussion of the Center's history and mission. "What we've tried to do," he explained, "is bring together health and environment" by studying the problems and developing workable solutions and alternatives. An important part of the Center's work, he said, is community involvement or "strategic engagement" of a broad range of sectors of society - including industry, companies that use chemicals, scientists who develop chemicals and plastics, and government, as well as labor and anti-poverty advocates. "We think it's important to start with a high vision," he noted, "but then work [proactively] within the pragmatic realities to realize solutions."

In his part of the presentation, Kriebel elaborated on "the philosophical conundrum" that Tickner said plagues the process of assessing risk and determining causality in regard to chemicals. "Most people and most scientists," Kriebel began, "have this mental model that there is some threshold of evidence that you need to get over" to establish a causal link between exposures and adverse health effects to justify action.

According to Kriebel, however, causality can be seen instead as a continuum, where much lower levels of evidence may justify a progression of interventions, beginning, for example, with eliminating unnecessary uses of chemicals and the use of alternatives. "How much evidence you need," he argued, "depends on whether you have alternatives... to achieve the same social good without the hazards," using a European-like "precautionary principle" and deciding what is a "plausibly safer" option.

Slatin closed out the team's presentation with a focus on successes and hopeful signs, as well as bold new partnerships that would have appeared unlikely not long ago - such as blue-green alliances uniting labor, community, environmental and other groups in recent efforts. Because much of the problem with chemicals, public health and the environment is rooted in production, Slatin said, a comprehensive approach to sustainability needs to include a consideration of jobs that will be lost in the push for sustainability.

"Every time that we do something to manipulate our environment," Slatin concluded, "there is something that is going to have a negative impact on us, as well as a positive impact... Participation is fundamental, not secondary, in this process."

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