The American Public Health Association has made (ahem) a rather revealing choice for a keynote speaker at its annual meeting next week.
You might think the APHA would choose some accomplished public health official or researcher. But you’d be wrong.
Does the name “Erin Brockovich” mean anything to you?
At most, you may recall a so-so movie from 2000 starring Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, a former file clerk at a California law firm who blamed a Pacific Gas & Electric power plant in Hinkley, Calif., for hundreds of illnesses in the local population. The controversy resulted in PG&E settling the accusations for $333 million in 1996 — even though the alleged culprit, Chromium 6-contaminated water, couldn’t have possibly caused any of the alleged illnesses.
In spite of Brockovich’s non-existent public health qualifications and dubious experience, the APHA is advertising her “groundbreaking work in the area of industrial environmental negligence, its devastating effects on the public’s health, and her continued pursuit of justice for those who have been harmed.”
I’m not quite sure what “negligence” the APHA is referring to — perhaps they meant to say “negligee” — as the APHA Web site sports a photo of Brockovich wearing what appears to be a bustier, emphasizing her rather ample bosom with the top of her bra peeking out just so.) Public health, this is not. (Fortunately, the APHA’s photo of closing session speaker Dr. Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, shows him fully clothed!)
As debasing as the Brockovich buffoonery is, the most disappointing aspect of the meeting is the public health bureaucracy’s relentless effort to scare the public about chemicals in the environment. The session entitled “Human Biomonitoring Research and Usage” is part of an effort to scare the public about trace levels of chemicals that may be detected in their bodies — even though there is no evidence that such low levels of exposure to chemicals have caused any harm whatsoever to anyone.
Another session will feature an effort to scare the public about pesticide use in schools — completely overlooking the inconvenient fact that properly applied pesticides are safe and, moreover, necessary. Our children's health often depends on the application of products such as disinfectants, rodenticides, insecticides and herbicides, given that they face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, poison oak and ivy, rats and mice.
The Brockovich-ization of the public health community has attracted the attention of Kevin Marchman, the executive director of the National Organization of African Americans in Housing. He’s sending a letter to APHA executive director George Benjamin urging the APHA to “focus all its energies on the nation’s most important health issues.”
Marchman warned that activists are distracting the public’s attention away from real health threats — and harming the very Americans who need help the most.
“Creating senseless fears about pesticides only hurts the people most in need of better nutrition and better housing conditions,” Marchman wrote. “Lower-income people desperately need more fruits and vegetables in their diets and pesticides help American growers provide these nutritious foods safely and affordably. Buying only organic foods is simply not a necessary or a viable approach for low-income families. Poor people cannot afford the high prices of organic produce, nor should they be stampeded into paying this added expense to put produce on their dinner tables when conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are abundant, safe and economical,” Marchman continued.
“Scaring people into eliminating fruits and vegetables from their diets as a misguided way of avoiding pesticides will only result in people eating far less-healthy foods. Ironically, this approach would be sure to contribute to the fast-growing and real concern of obesity, especially in our children,” he wrote.
Though Marchman has the right message, it appears that he might need an Erin Brockovich-type to carry that message to APHA meeting attendees.