Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Oh yeah, the conference

Since I had my Baselian adventure at the expense of the U.S. taxpayers, I suppose I owe y'all something in return. To remind you, I was there to attend the annual international meeting sponsored by the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology and the International Society of Exposure Science. The latter is not about exhibitionism but what happens to your body when you swallow, inhale or have contact with various chemicals, mostly, and some other stuff like really hot weather or obnoxious noise or whatever.

So. On the one hand the environmental movement has had some great successes over the decades. They finally managed to convince political leaders to get the lead out of gasoline and paint, for one very good example. We've also reduced other nasty tailpipe emissions, banned many pesticides and restricted others, improved our drinking water, and reduced workers' exposure to many harmful agents, thanks to the scientists who attend these meetings. Environmental epidemiology is really the discipline that first established the link between tobacco smoking and all the nasty stuff it does, although lots of people still smoke.

Now that we're not dying so much of infectious diseases and us folks from the rich countries, at least, are well nourished and otherwise healthier and longer lived than ever, the relatively subtle effects of remaining hazards -- many of them created by ourselves -- loom larger. The overwhelming challenges of climate change and resource depletion may seem to relegate endocrine disruptors and ultrafine particles to minor league status, but that's really missing the point. It's all one fabric.

The problem of endocrine disruptors is increasingly recognized by scientists, but barely on the public radar. Innumerable pervasive chemicals, notably constituents of plastics, have chemical structures similar to hormones. A common effect is to raise estrogen levels. Fish and amphibians are very sensitive to these effects in their developmental phases, and the presence of these chemicals in water is likely contributing to the catastrophic decline in amphibian populations and also affecting many aquatic fish. So this has a great deal to do with the stability of ecosystems and the mass extinction now underway.

These exposures also seem to affect human children. Children now endure a very complex suite of low-level exposures. Yes, plenty of hazardous chemicals occur in nature but we're getting most of our exposures nowadays from manufactured goods and processed food. We just don't have adequate information on the safety of the vast majority of substances to which we heedlessly expose ourselves every day. They are affecting long-term cancer risk, neuro-development, sexual maturation, and many other biological processes, in ways we little understand.

The problem is, the good folks I met in Basel are largely talking to each other. The vast majority of folks, had they been able to come up with $250 for a conference badge, would barely have understood a word that was said. The societies worry about how to communicate with policymakers, but not with the public in general. They seem to think that these "policymakers" will do what is wise and good if only they are made to understand the science.

That's not how it works, obviously. Reason and truth have little to do with the making of public policy, until and unless the people rise up and make it happen.

I came away more convinced than ever that the democratization of science is our greatest imperative. We are the only species capable of understanding that we are destroying the planet even as we go ahead and keep doing it. There is a contradiction there that we must resolve, and fast.

3 comments:

robin andrea said...

Sounds like an interesting and important conference. Sure wish some of the news would make the kind of headlines it surely demands.

Cervantes said...

Yep. Plenty of news about shark attacks; right now they seem to be into crocodiles for some reason.

robin andrea said...

The really really important news happened this weekend. No, not Syria, but.... Miley Cyrus...of course. I'm glad we have our priorities straight.