By Eliza Duggan, OBOS Intern
After listening to environmental experts discuss the effects of toxins, it’s easy to become wary of eating non-organic food, drinking town water, or even breathing the air. But workshop organizers at the Toxics Action Center‘s 25th Annual Environmental Action Conference exuded an enthusiasm for steps we can take that left me more aware and hopeful than stressed.
The March 3 event at Northeastern University’s student center was bustling with environmental supporters. Most of the attendees were already involved in local organizing efforts throughout New England, but there was also an encouraging number of people of all ages who came to learn more about improving their community’s health.
Cynthia Jennings of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice welcomed attendees with a punchy speech that encouraged everyone to remember that, “All of these organizations started with one person working for the environment.”
The conference was organized into alternating workshops and speakers on topics ranging from zero-waste initiatives to lobbying decision makers. I attended two workshops that addressed local environmental toxins, the first of which had an ambitious title: “Toxics In Our Towns: Passing Effective Local Policy to Reduce and Eliminate Pesticides.” The panel included Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, whose passion for organic horticulture drives him to educate citizens and municipalities on chemical-free lawn and turf care, and members of Green Cape, an organization that develops non-toxic strategies in Cape Cod.
There are many reasons to support chemical-free horticulture, but among the most compelling arguments I found were the prenatal and postnatal effects of pesticide and herbicide exposure on fetal development and a child’s long-term health. One study that measured the effect of IQ in relation to pesticide exposure found that children who had heavy pesticide contact had poorer scores than those who had less.
The second workshop was called “Toxic Chemicals A to Z: Protecting Your Body, Your Community and Beyond.” Although many common household and personal care items — including plastic food containers, household cleaners, and cosmetics — contain synthetic chemicals and potential carcinogens that can endanger our general and reproductive health, the panel focused more on solutions than on problems.
Individually, we can try to purchase safer products (the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a good site for learning more about what’s in the products you use), but large-scale structural changes are also necessary. Efforts in Massachusetts include the Safer Alternatives bill, which would create a program to develop alternatives to hazardous chemicals.
Two activists answered questions about engaging in environmental projects. Jan Schlictmann, an attorney who has fought for victims of water contamination, discussed the passion that drives him and others working in this field. A dynamic speaker, Schlictmann emphasized the importance of sharing experiences, acquiring facts (the best response weapon), and empowering ourselves and others.
Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, spoke next. Her environmental activism was sparked in the late 1970s after discovering her son’s elementary school in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was built on top of a toxic chemical dump. She encouraged conference attendees to be “creative, out-of-the-box thinkers” — a critical skill in environmental justice efforts.
The conference was not only a call to continue to actively participate in environmental efforts, but also a celebration of the good works that have been done, with much hope for the future. You can view Toxics Action Center’s timeline of environmental victories and communities in action at toxicsaction25.org.
Plus: Need more inspiration to get involved? Read an excerpt from the 2011 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” about women who have exposed environmental health hazards and worked to eliminate them.
Eliza Duggan, a Maine native, is a junior at Boston College with a passion for women’s issues. She has been an intern with Our Bodies Ourselves since May of 2011.