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Ecological Medicine

Ecological Medicine “Ecological medicine” is a term coined by Carolyn Raffensperger, SEHN’s executive director, in 2001 for a new field of inquiry and action to reconcile the care and health of ecosystems, populations, communities, and individuals. (See - Utne, Our Planet, Our Selves)

The health of Earth’s ecosystem is the foundation of all health. Human impact in the form of population pressure, resource abuse, economic self-interest, and inappropriate technologies is rapidly degrading the environment. This impact, in turn, is creating new patterns of human and ecosystem poverty and disease. The tension among ecosystem health, public health, and individual health is reaching a breaking point at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century.

Read the brief statement describing ecological medicine and "The Case for Ecological Medicine". (The Networker, Vol. 7 No. 4, October 2002)

SEHN’s science director, Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., is an authority on environmental links to reproductive and developmental disorders, neurotoxicity, and other public health problems. His books Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment (MIT Press, 1999) and In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development (Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2000) describe what scientists know and suspect about environmental causes for a host of disorders from learning disabilities to cancer. They also describe the great uncertainties and the limits of science in establishing links between cause and effect.

  Center for Industrial Competitiveness
Environmental Threats to Health: An Ecological Approach Throughout the Lifespan
October 24, 2011
Ted Schettler, Science Director
Watch the talk here.

  Interview with Ted Schettler for Commonweal's New School series.

  Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging
October, 2008

This report primarily examines the lifetime influences of environmental factors on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and their underlying pathologic mechanisms. Our close look at the science of these diseases shows they are related to a number of features of modern society and that Alzheimer’s disease especially is linked to other serious health problems of modern times, which we call the "western disease cluster."

  Conversation with Ted Schettler, MD and Michael Lerner
New School at
February 1, 2008

Michael: Welcome Ted Schettler, we’re delighted to have this conversation with you today. Our topic is the implications of ecological health. And you bring a very strong background to that; you are one of the leading physicians in the environmental health, science and activist community, traveling across the country and around the world to talk about ecological health. You are one of the leading people in the science and environmental health network and also in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), holding important positions with both groups and you’ve thought a great deal about ecological health. So, in order to start, because I believe that people really have to understand these stories, I wonder if you could talk for a few minutes about your personal journey from being a practicing physician to a full time scientist promoting public and professional awareness of ecological health? What drove you from a satisfying medical practice to make this major career change? (excerpt)

Read the entire transcript. [PDF]

  Collaborative on Health and the Environment
Dr. Schettler works closely with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a nonpartisan partnership of individuals and organizations concerned with the role of the environment in human and ecosystem health. CHE seeks to raise the level of scientific and public dialogue about the role of environmental contaminants and other environmental factors in many of the common diseases, disorders and conditions of our time. Established in 2002, participation in CHE is open to health professionals, researchers, health-affected and patient groups, advocacy organizations and indeed anyone concerned about protecting the health of current and future generations from environmental harm.

The latest emerging scientific evidence on links between diseases, disorders and disabilities and possible environmental causes is summed up in a series of papers now posted on the CHE science website. The site seeks to make new information accessible to people who care about these issues and who are looking for answers, not just about the "why's" but also the "what's," ... as in "what can I do?"

The list of conditions that science now plausibly links to the effects of environmental contaminants includes: asthma, birth defects, brain cancer, breast cancer, childhood leukemia, endometriosis, infertility, learning and behavioral disorders, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and testicular cancer.

The science is not certain... science never provides absolute certainty... but the evidence is strong enough to warrant careful consideration and to suggest preventative steps that can decrease risks.

Dr. Schettler has published peer-reviewed analyses on the following topics for CHE (click on the title to link to the full paper, and on summary to link to an overview of what we know):

Ecological medicine: Complex systems, health, and disease (Oct, 2006)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Heart Disease and the Environment (July 2005)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Autism: Do environmental factors play a role in causation? (July 2004)
By Ted Schettler MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Birth Defects and the Environment (July 2004)
By Betty Mekdeci, Birth Defect Research for Children, and Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Endometriosis (April 2003)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Infertility and Related Reproductive Disorders (May 2003)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Developmental disabilities-impairment of children’s brain development and function: the role of environmental factors (Feb 2003)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network
(This paper was adapted from: Schettler T. Toxic threats to neurologic development of children. Environ Health Perspect 2001 Dec;109 Suppl 6:813-6 )

Prostate Cancer (April 2003)
By Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science and Environmental Health Network

Also on the CHE science site, read papers by Dr. Schettler's colleague Gina Solomon, MD, MPH (San Francisco School of Medicine and the Natural Resources Defense Council) on the latest emerging evidence of environmental causes of: Asthma, Brain Tumors, Breast Cancer, and Ovarian Cancer.

  Health Care Without Harm
SEHN also participates in Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals and health care systems, medical professionals, community groups, health-affected constituencies, labor unions, environmental and environmental health organizations, and religious groups working to transform the health care industry worldwide. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) believes that the medical industry should not be a source of harm to public health and the environment, and that it is possible to move toward operating in an ecologically sustainable manner without compromising patient safety or care.

HCWH has successfully campaigned to reduce hospital emissions of dioxin and mercury (two toxic chemicals that contaminate people and ecosystems at hazardous levels), and to push for safer substitutes for some plastics in medical equipment. As a result of HCWH initiatives, more hospitals have begun to preferentially purchase DEHP-free medical devices, particularly in their neonatal units.

HCWH successes with PVC, DEHP, and mercury have created the conditions for addressing materials policies more broadly in health care. Brominated flame retardants are now being targeted for identification and phase-out in hospitals, where alternatives exist. Dr. Schettler has worked specifically with HCWH’s safer materials workgroup, which is advising Kaiser Permanente (the oldest HMO in the country) and Consorta (a major group purchasing organization) on developing a comprehensive chemical policy for all medical materials. This larger systemic change in the health care industry is an important focus of HCWH’s ongoing work.

  Ecosystem Health
Architect William McDonough asks the question "How can we design in a way that loves all the children of all species for all time?" The Science and Environmental Health Network acknowledges and acts on the basis that we are no more and no less than the life around us.

SEHN began addressing the concept of Ecosystem Health in June 2000, with a gathering of conservation biologists in Missoula, Montana. These biologists wanted to ensure support for the melding of science with public interest values and ecosystem advocacy. This meeting was followed by a two-day meeting in November 2000, which resulted in the Missoula Statement: Conservation Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty.

Excerpt from the Missoula Statement:

The conservation of ecosystems and species, a daunting task for humans, has been thwarted in part by insufficient and inappropriate use of science, particularly in the way that scientific uncertainty is reported and incorporated into decision making. Ecological systems are complex, and our understanding of them will always include scientific uncertainty. However, we assert that such uncertainty must not be used to avoid responsible ecological decision making. Failing to act today to conserve ecosystems and prevent species extinctions will have significant social and ecological costs tomorrow.

How do we apply the precautionary principle (principle of fore-caring) to the social and ecological challenges of restoration and conservation of biodiversity? For example, we know some of the consequences of toxic exposure on a developing human's intellectual functioning. What, by extension, might be the consequences of toxic exposure to the "intelligence" of a tree, or an aquatic ecosystem?

Likewise, if the precautionary principle engages ecosystem restoration via the "fore-caring" meaning of that principle, should restoration take a more central stage in the application of the precautionary principle with regard to human health issues as well? Because harm has occurred through past actions, and though there is uncertainty in how or whether pieces of ecosystems can come back together again, it is precautionary to make room for restoration.

Read Public Interest Scientist (and Missoula Statement signatory) Mary O’Brien’s Contemplating Impulse and Acting on Navels, a speech given at the international conference Taking Nature Seriously: Citizens, Science, and the Environment, held at the University of Oregon in February of 2001.

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