a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)
Transcripts: 508-1 to 508-5
Week: 508.1 Guest: Ira Helfand, M.D. Topic: Children's Health Report Card - Part One Host: Richard Roeder Producer: Ed Graham
NEMA: This is a five part series on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card, assessing the voting record of the Members of the United States Congress. My guest is Dr. Ira Helfand, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
NEMA: Dr. Helfand, tell me a little bit about the history of Physicians for Social Responsibility. I associate your organization with nuclear weapons in the '60s but you've expanded to a lot of other areas. When did the organization begin and how did this all come about?
HELFAND: The organization first began in the early 1960s. It was started up in Boston by Dr. Bernard Lown, the eminent cardiologist at Harvard and it was concerned at that point exclusively with the issues concerning nuclear weapons and especially at that time with the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and the organization played a very key role in alerting public opinion to the dangers of atmospheric testing particularly focusing on the health of children. We helped to collect the deciduous baby teeth from children all around the country and demonstrated that these teeth had strontium 90, radio-active strontium incorporated into them as a result of the exposures from fall-out and this was very very powerful for people understanding that their children were incorporating radio-active material into their bodies. After the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty was passed and ratified in 1963, the organization tended to become less active and in the late 1960s, it essentially ceased to be active altogether and we restarted it back in 1978, also up in Boston. At that time, it was Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian pediatrician and anti-nuclear activist, myself and Dr. Eric Chivian, a psychiatrist in Boston who has remained very active with the organization and again, we were focused primarily on the nuclear issue. This was at the time of the great increase in tension in the cold war and we were concerned both with nuclear power and the health effects of nuclear power and especially with nuclear weapons and the new arms race that began with the election of President Reagan in 1980.
NEMA: You've expanded outside of the realm of nuclear weaponry and you've expanded into quite a few other issues, particularly those focusing on children's health and environmental health. Talk about that a little bit.
HELFAND: I think the impetus behind the organization back when we were dealing with nuclear weapons was the perception that nuclear war posed a threat to human health and human survival for which the medical community had no adequate response, that if there was a nuclear war, there would be nothing that we would be able to do about it after the fact and therefore, we had to focus on prevention. And by the way, that is still an enormously important focus for the organization. We tend to think of the nuclear issue as being dealt with somewhat by virtue of the fact that the cold war is over but it's not at all. There's a tremendous problem still there which our organization is vitally concerned with trying to deal with. But in around 1989, 1990 it became quite clear to us as an organization as it had been to many of us as individuals that there were other threats to human survival that were on the same scale as nuclear war, perhaps not as potentially immediate but nonetheless as vast and specifically there were a group of issues that could be summarized under the threats to the global environment and it is clear if you look at what is happening to our planet that the degradation of the environment that's taking place will ultimately make this planet uninhabitable.
NEMA: Join me for part two on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card with Dr. Ira Helfand.
Week: 508.2 Guest: Ira Helfand, M.D. Topic: Children's Health Report Card - Part Two Host: Richard Roeder Producer: Ed Graham
NEMA: This is part two in a five part series on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card, assessing the voting record of the Members of the United States Congress. My guest is Dr. Ira Helfand, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
HELFAND: It is clear if you look at what is happening to our planet that the degradation of the environment that's taking place will ultimately make this planet uninhabitable. There's no question about that. We don't know what the exact time frame is. We don't know if life will become impossible in 50 years or 100 years or 150 years but this is a finite resource, this planet, and at a certain point its resources will be depleted and it will be so polluted that life will not be possible and as for the case of nuclear weapons, once you have gotten to that point, nothing can be done about it essentially and so again, the focus must be on prevention and trying to keep the situation from developing in the first place and so the organization in 1989, 1990 began to address these environmental questions focusing both on the long term implications of environmental degradation and also on the short term health effects which are real and are felt right now.
NEMA: You broke down the study that resulted in your Children's Environmental Health Report Card. You essentially analyzed the voting record and philosophy of different senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress and sort of graded them in terms of their voting record. You broke this down into several different categories. Talk about what those categories are and how you decided on those categories to analyze.
HELFAND: The report card that you're referring to is something that we issued first in mid-year and then a final report card in December of this year. We looked at every member of the House and the Senate in terms of their voting record on issues that affected children's health through the environment and we focused on children in particular because they are particularly sensitive to environmental degradation, especially in need of protection. A lot of the legislation that's been passed in the environmental health field has tended to look at the data that's available about adults and the standards that we have have been based on what is it that's safe or dangerous for an adult to be exposed to. But children need to be protected to a greater degree because of their physiology. They bring in more air and drink more water and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults do and so they essentially are concentrating pollutants in the environment to a greater degree than adults are. And also they need to be specially protected because since their bodies are still in formation, they are more susceptible to carcinogens in particular and because hopefully they have more years of life ahead of them than adults do, they have a greater period of time in which to develop chronic illnesses and most environmental hazards, not all of them but most of them tend to produce chronic illnesses which take some time to develop so if you expose somebody my age in my late 40s, I'm only going to live for a certain period of time, there's less chance that I'm going to become ill. If you expose one of my children, they've a much greater chance of having their life span shortened by environmental exposure. So we looked particularly at the question of children's health and then we looked at several different areas. We looked at clean water. We looked at clean air, the qualities of protection for the food supply, legislation that dealt with safety of schools and other public buildings and we looked at what we called the green security blanket, general environmental measures.
NEMA: Join me for part three on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card with Dr. Ira Helfand.
Week: 508.3 Guest: Ira Helfand, M.D. Topic: Children's Health Report Card - Part Three Host: Richard Roeder Producer: Ed Graham
NEMA: This is part three in a five part series on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card, assessing the voting record of the Members of the United States Congress. My guest is Dr. Ira Helfand, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. I asked Dr. Helfand to explain the categories that Physicians for Social Responsibility selected on which to grade Congress.
HELFAND: We looked particularly at the question of children's health and then we looked at several different areas. We looked at clean water. We looked at clean air, the qualities of protection for the food supply, legislation that dealt with safety of schools and other public buildings and we looked at what we called the green security blanket, general environmental measures that dealt with the environment as a whole and in those five categories we chose what we thought were the most important votes that have taken place in the House and in the Senate and we graded every Member of the Congress based on how they voted on those.
NEMA: When you saw the results of this, were you shocked or did you go "Yeah, that's politics as usual." What was your response?
HELFAND: I was pretty upset. I wasn't enormously surprised because we've seen this pattern unfolding during the course of the year as one good piece of legislation after another was blocked or one bad piece of legislation after another was passed. So we knew that this was happening but when you break down the numbers and look at it, for example, there are more than a half of the Members of Congress that got Fs on our report card. Not Ds but Fs. They just flunked outright. We looked all together at, I think it was 22 votes in the house and 11 votes in the senate and there are 100 Members of the Congress who voted wrong every single time they had an opportunity. They never voted to protect children's health on any of the many pieces of legislation that we looked at and yeah, I think that has to be pretty shocking.
NEMA: What kind of a physician are you? Are you a specialist?
HELFAND: I trained as an internist and I worked for the last 12 years full time as an emergency room physician.
NEMA: Do you sometimes, when you're either putting people back together as an emergency room physician or whether you're practicing as an internist, do you feel a sense of futility in that you're attempting to protect and help people regain their health and at the same time you're watching this slow movement in our country of environmental degradation. It must feel very futile sometimes.
HELFAND: I think that's precisely the kind of perception which I feel and which many physicians feel that fuels our members and leads physicians and other health professionals to become active around these issues. Once damage of a certain type has been done, all that you can do is try to soften the blow. You can't really get people back to full health and once someone has developed a cancer, some cancers are treatable and even curable but you're talking about someone who has seriously jeopardized their health and seriously damaged their health. I think there is a tremendous sense on the part of many health professionals that there is something terribly wrong here, that we have been able to deal with some diseases - the diseases of poverty, malnutrition, many infectious diseases, but we are now facing diseases of industrial life and we are not dealing with those adequately and as a result of that, we are paying now a terrible price and will pay a much greater price in the future as our environment becomes more and more polluted.
NEMA: Join me for part four on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card with Dr. Ira Helfand.
Week: 508.4 Guest: Ira Helfand, M.D. Topic: Children's Health Report Card - Part Four Host: Richard Roeder Producer: Ed Graham
NEMA: This is part four in a five part series on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card, assessing the voting record of the Members of the United States Congress. My guest is Dr. Ira Helfand, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
NEMA: Is the juxtaposition of a healthy economy and healthy job market versus the environment, is there a place where the two are compatible or even complementary?
HELFAND: I'm not an economist. That's not my area of expertise. I think that certainly - let me phrase this a little bit differently if I could - to say that a healthy economy and healthy people are incompatible, let's say that personal health and economic health are incompatible is clearly not right and I think it's something of a short term, long term question. Many of the decisions against protecting public health are taken with a short term economic basis and it is true. If you look at things that need to be done to clean up the environment or to protect the environment in the short term, they cost money and in the case of certain industries, they may require the ending of certain economic activities and that would cost people jobs in the short run. In the long run, if we don't do these things, the economic consequences will be far greater. The other way that I think that people don't at this that we need to is when we look at economic costs, we tend to look at the economic effects and economic processes, jobs, industries that are in existence now and don't tend to look at the economic growth that could take place if we developed an economy that was more compatible with good public health. For example, I think the clearest is in the case of electricity generation. Nuclear power is clearly unacceptable from a public health point of view. There's no way that we should continue to rely on nuclear power to generate our electricity. Well, to shut down the existing nuclear power plants would, even over time, would have negative economic effects on the companies that run them. On the other hand, to replace that electricity we need to build an entire new kind of energy economy based on renewable energy sources. That would create a vast new industry with huge numbers of jobs and people don't tend to look at that because that potential industry that can come into being in the future doesn't have an organized lobby already in existence which is down there in Washington bending the ears of our Congressmen and Congresswomen.
NEMA: Was there an area of the Children's Environmental Health Report Card that you particularly found the most bothersome and you feel is the most threatening to the health of children?
HELFAND: I don't think there's any one area that stands out more than others. Clean water is as important as clean air. Safe food is as important as a safe school. And I think almost all of the votes that we looked at were quite important. I could give you a couple of examples of some of the things. One of the votes that stood out - early on, as you know Congress passed legislation ending unfunded mandates, that is ending the practice of requiring states and local governments to enact regulations if the federal government didn't provide them money to pay for their activities. A number of bills were introduced to try to exempt certain critically important activities that the federal government has mandated and these were rejected.
ROEDER: Join me for part five on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card with Dr. Ira Helfand.
Week: 508.5 Guest: Ira Helfand, M.D. Topic: Children's Health Report Card - Part Five Host: Richard Roeder Producer: Ed Graham
NEMA: This is part five in a five part series on the 1995 Children's Environmental Health Report Card, assessing the voting record of the Members of the United States Congress. My guest is Dr. Ira Helfand, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
HELFAND: A number of bills were introduced to try to exempt certain critically important activities that the federal government has mandated and these were rejected. Congressman Borsky from Pennsylvania introduced an amendment to exempt from the federal mandate bill regulations on water pollution. That was rejected. Congressman Maloney from New York introduced legislation to in general exempt any provision that protected children's health. That was rejected. Congressman Clay from Missouri introduced an amendment to exempt federal mandates that regulate lead paint and asbestos exposure in school - two of the environmental hazards that we are most clear about. That was rejected. Congressman Slaughter from New York introduced legislation to exempt from this moratorium on regulations those which dealt with safe meat and with cryptosporidium in public water supplies. That's the parasite which caused the terrible outbreak in Milwaukee a couple of years ago. And it also would've exempted legislation dealing with importing food in lead soldered cans which causes increased lead levels. That piece of legislation was rejected by the Congress. So it was a broad spectrum of measures that the Congress refused to enact last year to protect public health.
NEMA: Of course this is a very difficult thing for you to gauge so I'm asking you to answer one of those sort of crystal ball questions but how effective are you being? Your organization. Are you having an effect? Are you influencing anyone and how optimistic are you about the future?
HELFAND: I think we clearly are influencing people. When we looked at the report card that we issued at mid-year and looked at the report card that we issued at the end of the year, there certainly was a large group of people that got As at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester and a large group of people that got Fs at both but there was also a sizable group in the middle that had gotten Cs and sort of were moving their grades up into the B, B+ range and so I think there are people in the Congress who it's well worth talking to. In the long term, I think there is going to have to be a much more profound understanding of the need to put public health ahead of short term economic interests and I'm guardedly optimistic about this. I think that there is overwhelming public support for this kind of legislation and we need to translate that into public policy again. There's an odd thing I think going on in the current Congress where there's this passion for deregulation of all economic activity has been embraced by the Congress but the public, when they see what that means in terms of health, is very upset by that and does not want the environmental legislation of the last generation to be undone. We are in danger of doing just that, of bequeathing to our children an environmental legacy that is unacceptable.
NEMA: Is a copy of this report card available to the general public?
HELFAND: Yes it is. We distributed it to every Member of Congress and it can be obtained either by calling or writing to the Physicians for Social Responsibility office in Washington, D.C.