Prescription for Nature | nik harron

I’VE LED the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) for 10 years now, and when I tell people about our organization one question I don’t often receive is: “Physicians for the Environment? What’s that?” The fact is, people get it: If you want folks to be healthy, you need to look after the planet they live on.

The involvement and leadership of doctors and nurses in environmental campaigns is one of the most hopeful developments of recent years. When health professionals talk, politicians tend to listen. And not infrequently, we win great victories.

I remember attending a 2005 city council meeting in Peterborough, Ontario, where CAPE was urging a ban on lawn-and-garden pesticides. One of our member physicians argued passionately that these chemicals increase people’s risk of cancer, birth defects and neurological illness. Next, a nurse got up and reiterated the ban’s benefits. A representative of the Canadian Cancer Society weighed in. Then a councillor rose. “We’ve heard from our doctors,” he said. “We’ve heard from health charities. We’ve heard from our nurses. How can we say no?” When the vote came, almost every councillor endorsed a ban, passing what was then the most comprehensive pesticide prohibition in Canada.

I will not soon forget that response: “How can we say no?”

Since Peterborough, doctors and nurses have spoken out repeatedly to protect both people and nature. As you’ll read in the pages of this issue, Dr. Éric Notebaert of Montreal helped to close Quebec’s Gentilly nuclear plant and set his community on a safer energy path. Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, played a central role in pressing her province to pass a cosmetic-pesticide ban, the most health-protective legislation of its kind in North America. Dr. Hilary de Veber, a Toronto pediatrician, was a key voice in the campaign to close Ontario’s coal-fired power plants, which at their peak emitted the pollution of some six million automobiles. Thanks to Dr. de Veber and her allies, the province shuttered its last coal facility in April 2014.

For some doctors, environmental advocacy has come at a price. Doctors David Colby and John O’Connor write about the criticism they received for speaking out, respectively, on wind power and the Alberta tar sands. Colby was attacked because he candidly reported that there was no evidence wind energy causes health problems. O’Connor was pilloried for an opposing reason: suggesting that tar sands operations could be a factor in illness among his patients. These brave physicians could have kept their heads down; no one would have complained. Instead they chose to speak and faced the consequences. I have no doubt history will vindicate them – indeed it has already begun to.

In the 1980s, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War – composed of American and Russian doctors who bridged the Cold War divide – received the Nobel Prize for its effort to make peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. The organization was a hopeful beacon in a world darkened by threats of World War III. Its members described nuclear conflict as the ultimate health issue. In 2015, we can say the same of climate change. But I am hopeful that the medical professionals represented in this issue – and many others – will help us once again to stave off planetary destruction. 

Gideon Forman is a long time peace and environmental activist.

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