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In The News Toxic hazard's impact on health to be explored
By Tammy Webber
Star-Tribune energy reporter
Indianapolis Star November 5, 2004


National experts will discuss links between health and environmental exposures at the Hoosier Environmental Council's annual meeting Saturday.

The public and physicians may attend a workshop -- from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St. -- led by the Science and Environmental Health Network. The organization advocates greater scrutiny of health-environmental connections.

Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the health network and a physician at Boston Medical Center, said toxic materials are especially harmful to children, but parents and physicians can help keep them safe.

"Go through the house and garage; look under the sink. What kinds of chemicals do you have? If you garden, do you use pesticides? Which ones? What do you know about them?" he said. "The take-home message . . . is that children are often disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable."

He said lead-based paint and mercury, for example, can harm developing brains, and polluted air can cause asthma and stunt lung development.

Schettler also encourages physicians to learn patients' environmental histories, asking about their communities, homes, hobbies and habits, such as smoking.

"The reality is, most physicians don't routinely include an assessment of a patient's environment," he said. "This could really make a difference in providing care."

Participants also will hear about the "precautionary principle," which says that if there is credible evidence something could be harmful, precautionary action should be taken even if a direct cause and effect are not fully understood.

The burden of proving whether a chemical or technology is dangerous or safe is often on consumers, rather than the manufacturer, Schettler said. In the meantime -- as with lead and asbestos -- the toll on public health can be enormous.

Thousands of chemicals haven't undergone any type of safety testing -- a stark contrast to the precautionary approach taken with pharmaceutical drugs, which cannot be used or sold in the United States until they are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, he said.

Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Tim Maloney said the workshop was planned by the group's new health and environment committee, which includes physicians.

"There is a growing awareness that there are a lot of environmental contaminants and substances out there for which we don't really understand their actual and potential effects," he said.

"The whole idea . . . is better safe than sorry."

Call Star reporter Tammy Webber at (317) 444-6212.

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