Our Toxic Environment

Our Toxic Environment: Its Effects and What We Can Do about It

Friday, March 26 2010

10:30 AM - 12 PM

Kroon Hall room G01

195 Prospect Street


John Wargo

Philip & Alice Shabecoff

Julie Zimmerman, respondent

Click here for a NY Times op-ed of relevance to this discussion

John P. Wargo is a Professor of Environmental Policy, Political Science, and Risk Analysis; and Chair of the Yale College Environmental Studies Major and Program. B.A., University of Pennsylvania; Ph.D., Yale University. He holds appointments in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Department of Political Science, and is a fellow of Branford College.  He has just written Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health, published by Yale Press in fall 2009, compares the history of five serious and global environmental threats to children’s health in the twentieth century: nuclear weapons testing, pesticides, hazardous sites, vehicle particulate emissions, and hormonally active ingredients in plastics.  Scientific American chose Green Intelligence as one of the best science books for 2009.  Professor Wargo also wrote Our Children’s Toxic Legacy: How Science and Law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides, published by Yale University Press in 1998, presenting a history of law and science governing pesticides with special attention to the vulnerability of infants and children. The book won the American Association of Publishers award as the Best Scholarly & Professional Book in Government and Political Science in 1998.  He is also co-author of Ecosystems: Science and Management published by Springer-Verlag in 1998. He participated in several National Academy of Sciences committees, analyzing children’s exposure to toxic substances.   Professor Wargo has testified before both Senate and House Committees, and been an advisor to the White House, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture organization, the EPA and USDA on threats to children’s environmental health as well as policies that would offer greater protection. Professor Wargo’s research and scholarship has focused on legal strategies to control environmental threats to children’s health including air pollution, pesticides, plastics, mercury, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. He is expert in both the law and regulation of these hazards, and conducts research on women’s and children’s exposure to mixtures of toxic substances.

For this panel, Wargo will discuss much of the material that composed his most recent book.  A description of the book follows.

We live in a world awash in manmade chemicals, from the pesticides on our front lawns to the diesel exhaust in the air we breathe. Although experts are beginning to understand the potential dangers of these substances, there are still more than 80,000 synthetic compounds that have not been sufficiently tested to interpret their effects on human health. Yale University professor John Wargo has spent much of his career researching the impact of chemical exposures on women and children. In this book, he explains the origins of society’s profound misunderstanding of everyday chemical hazards and offers a practical path toward developing greater “green intelligence.”

Despite the rising trend in environmental awareness, information about synthetic substances is often unavailable, distorted, kept secret, or presented in a way that prevents citizens from acting to reduce threats to their health and the environment. By examining the histories of five hazardous technologies and practices, Wargo finds remarkable patterns in the delayed discovery of dangers and explains the governments’ failures to manage them effectively. Sobering yet eminently readable, Wargo’s book ultimately offers a clear vision for a safer future through prevention, transparency, and awareness.

Philip Shabecoff is co-author with his wife Alice of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children, published in 2008 by Random House (due out in paperback from Chelsea Green as Poisoned for Profit in 2010).  Philip was the chief environmental correspondent for The New York Times for fourteen of the thirty-two years he worked there as a reporter. After leaving the Times, he founded and published Greenwire, an online daily digest of environmental news. He has appeared on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Washington Week in Review, CNN News, C-Span, National Public Radio, and the BBC. For his environmental writing, Shabecoff was selected as one of the “Global 500” by the United Nations’ Environmental Program.  He received the James Madison Award from the American Library Association for leadership in expanding the public’s right to know.  His previous books include A Fierce Green Fire: A History of the American Environmental Movement. 

Alice Shabecoff served in the 1970s as executive director of the National Consumers League, the country’s oldest consumer organization, and in the 1980s as founder and executive director of the national nonprofit Community Information Exchange, an information service for the community development sector.  As a freelance journalist focusing on family and consumer topics, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. She currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Birth Defects Research Center. 

Poisoned Profits was researched and written with support from the Ford, V. Kann Rasmussen, Heinz Family and Rockefeller foundations, under the sponsorship of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Institute for Children’s Environmental Health are current sponsors.  Some of the nation’s leading environmental health scientists served as advisors to the book.

For this panel, they will begin with an overview of the epidemic of chronic childhood illnesses among American children today, and what is now known about the role toxins, from manmade chemicals and heavy metals to nuclear waste, play in triggering that epidemic.

We will then discuss some of corporate America’s knowing acts of repeated pollution, as well as the network of scientists, lawyers, public relations professionals and legislators who enable this pollution. 

The focus of the discussion will be the question of how our nation can permit such a situation to persist.  Isn’t it madness to cut down our future?  Is it ethical?  Why don’t ‘the people’ pay attention, get angry, demand action?  How can we reconcile religious belief (including concern for the sanctity of life) with indifference to the poisoning and suffering of our children?  Does the toxic assault on our children stem from the same roots as the recent meltdown of the economy?   Why does the U.S. lag behind other developed countries in taking steps to reverse this epidemic?  Was there a stronger sense of community in the past that we have lost of late?  Is there something amiss in our national self-image or legal structure or political system?

Julie Beth Zimmerman is an Assistant Professor jointly appointed to the Department of Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering Program and the School of Forestry and Environment.  She is also a Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Virginia.  Her research interests include green engineering, environmentally benign design and manufacturing, and the fate and impacts of anthropogenic compounds in the environment as well as appropriate water treatment technologies for the developing world.  Dr. Zimmerman’s research is aimed at designing and developing innovative science, technology, and policy to advance sustainability.  Through her engineering research, Julie is working towards the next generation products, processes, and systems based on efficient and effective use of benign materials and energy to advance sustainability.  To enhance the likelihood of successful implementation of these next generation designs, Dr. Zimmerman studies the effectiveness and impediments of current and potential policies developed to advance sustainability. Together, these efforts represents a systematic and holistic approach to addressing the challenges of sustainability to enhance water and resource quality and quantity, to improve environmental protection, and to provide for a higher quality of life.

Dr. Zimmerman previously served as an engineer and program coordinator in the office of Research and Development at the United States Environmental Protection Agency where she managed grants to academia and small businesses in the areas of pollution prevention and sustainability and launched EPA’s P3 Aware program. She received a joint PhD from the University of Michigan in Environmental Engineering and Natural Resource Policy.