Environmental Health's Role in Sustainability

by Kas

Approximately 100 people from Washington, DC-area universities, local government, and private industry shared an organic experience at the 2009 Policy Greenhouse held this morning at The George Washington University.  The Greenhouse provided a forum for people to present, in five minutes or less, their ideas for innovative, sustainable solutions for local problems.  The solutions may be addressed now, using some portion of the millions of stimulus dollars received by DC, or in the near future through changes to existing or development of new DC-specific environmental policies.  The presentations were directed to The Committee on Government Operations and the Environment from the Council of the District of Columbia (who co-sponsored the event with the Office of Sustainability at GWU).  Read more about the Greenhouse and the solutions that were pitched here and at the Greater Greater Washington blog.

The Greenhouse was an innovative forum and, one could surmise, left attendees with âgoodâ feelings about DC government initiatives, some DC government offices, and how the community, DC government, and area universities are trying to capture sustainabilityâs gestalt.  Attendees probably left with a brain full of high impact ideas for solutions that can âdo goodâ and make people âfeel good.â

I left the meeting not feeling so good and asking myself two questions:

1) What are the problems the Greenhouse was organized to solve?
2) Why wasnât an environmental health practitioner one of the Greenhouse presenters?

To resolve these questions, I had a personal Greenhouse session where I presented several innovative solutions to myself.  Hereâs what I have come up with so far:

The Greenhouse organizers need a criteria-based decision-making tool to identify the top five sustainability-related problems.  Only then can a brainstorm session, like the Greenhouse, prove useful.  Throwing money at a solution that doesnât address a problem is not sustainable.

Also, the lack of a presence of public health â and environmental health specifically â seems to be a problem that extends beyond this single event. The burden is on the environmental health practitioners to elbow our way to the brainstorm roundtable.  It appears easier to get involved with sustainability-related issues and to have a say in these issues if youâre an engineer, architect, lawyer, or policy maker. Environmental health practitioners need to devote the time and other resources to have a presence in sustainability-related discussions.  If we utilize our risk assessment and risk communication knowledge, we may be able to effectively shape problem identification and problem resolution.

Finally, we need a dose of introspection.  People want to âdo goodâ and âfeel goodâ about the environment but havenât defined what is âgood.â  In our efforts to achieve greenly goodness we havenât taken the time to stop to think about why it is what weâre currently doing is ânot goodâ and why it leaves us feeling less than âgood.â

Kas is an industrial hygienist studying public health in the DC metro area.

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