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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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We’re going to continue to have a real struggle around chemical issues

An Interview with Peter Orris, MD, MPH

PSR:  Where do you see environmental health toxics work going? What do you think is coming up in the next three to five years?

Orris: I think we will continue to work on individual chemical problems. But I’m hopeful that, given the emphasis by the federal government on chemicals in general, and our  progress in understanding the toxicology of chemicals, we will begin to look at chemicals and the chemical industry as a whole and develop mechanisms to apply the Precautionary Approach to industrial chemicals over the next five years.

Of course, in the larger environmental health picture, climate change remains the biggest thing on the agenda.  One hopes in this country it won’t take a major catastrophe before there’s really a great deal of investment and effort to avoid the ill effects of climate change.

PSR: Where are we most likely to make the most progress?

Orris: I don’t know. Given the emphasis of the past three and a half years of the current administration, I would hope we would begin to move faster in the chemicals area and sustainable production as a whole and begin to make more progress in the next term.

I think working on all levels is important. At any particular time and any particular area, work at the state level is quite helpful. In Illinois we’ve move the safer chemicals agenda on the state, the county and the city level, let’s say with respect to BPA and mercury. The local and state levels have been very useful to us. Yet, considering that BPA is so ubiquitous, in pop cans and so on, it’s very hard to implement an effective ban in a particular area. But this industry is not located in every county in the country, and it is easier to pass legislation where there is no local industry affected.

There are other cases where toxics campaigns have had more teeth.  Some of the mercury initiatives, for instance.  Regulations, or even bans, in particular jurisdictions cause problems for the manufacturer. It tends to make them want to reduce all exposures so they can sell broadly and not have to worry about all the different constituencies.

Most of these initiatives are a process of public health education, that’s the key that pushes us ahead on them.

PSR:   What work are you prioritizing for the coming year? 

Orris:  Greening the health care industry. That primarily focuses on greener cleaners, at the moment, but it has potential for much broader application as it goes along. We’re doing that here in Illinois and with Health Care Without Harm, both nationally and internationally.  HCWH is also trying to get more locally produced and organic food in health care. What’s exciting about it is, they are approaching it as the food industry in general and not just one’s choices as an individual.  It’s a question of how you get the choices to become available, especially in the hospital but in the community too.

PSR:  What other needs do you see that we should be preparing to address in the next few years?

Orris:  I think we’re going to continue to have a real struggle around chemical issues.  The ability of the Federal Government to carry through on some of their original commitments has been very limited, both by the Congress and by the timidity with which they approach the public. So I am hopeful that the voting public will articulate their concerns about the environment and will look for real commitment to resolve these issues during the national elections.  And I hope this will empower the Federal Government to move ahead aggressively in this area. But it’s going to take a lot of work, and it makes this next election crucial, as there are real differences in approach to environmental issues amongst the candidates.

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