Suppose that you believed that there was an immanent threat of carcinogenic contamination to the water where you live. If you did, your health focus might shift from daily health concerns, like eating healthier foods, to joining forces with others to address a threat to your community’s health. Yet most often, instead of mobilizing for action when public health threats loom, we respond with doubt and inertia. We don’t believe that industry influence could push through regulatory policies to permit neurotoxic sweeteners, or allow harmful ingredients in food, cleansers, or personal care products. We can’t imagine that via weakened laws, billions of tons of untested chemicals can contaminate our homes, air, water and earth.

It seems incredible to us that politicians would allow billion dollar industries to pollute our region. But with certain exceptions, such as the growing awareness and organized action to address junk food and poor quality school food, overall community activism for public health is notable by its absence. Instead we, the health conscious, fine tune our own diets.

Over the last 50 years, industry has generated a wide range of useful products and services that have revolutionized our lives. But as we’ve seen recently in the Gulf Oil spill, where industry dollars focus on cutting corners rather than assuring safety and limiting health risk, there’s a shadow side to technology and product development– that the majority of health conscious people prefer to ignore.

Over time, as health risks of industrial practices and services have escalated, the majority of us carry attitudes formed back in the 1950’s when less was known about health risks, and trust in a protective government seemed less naive than it does today. That’s why we still believe that all unintended health consequences would have been foreseen and sufficiently addressed by government regulations in combination with honest business ethics and practices.

With this misguided trust, we act as if we don’t need to keep our eye on the ball. All we have to do is get enough exercise.

Despite our time’s many alerts and hazards, we still continue to extend 1950’s era trust to lawmakers, regulators and industry, perhaps because it’s far more convenient to go on with our daily lives than it is to face up to the profound health consequences of the socio-political-business environment of today. Even a major incident like the current and ongoing oil spill doesn’t wake us up to this trend and its system-wide health consequences.

Over the last 30 years, a host of powerful industries lobby and make campaign contributions. They put forth industry insiders for key governmental posts that are supposed to regulate industry. What happens to the health of all Americans when thousands of legislative and regulatory decisions like these tilt towards business agendas and profits, rather than public health? Whether it’s an unstoppable oil gush polluting a major body of water, BPA in baby bottles, carcinogens entering New York’s water supply, untested cocktails of microbes in medicines, heinous food ingredients or any other example, each one of these has a health consequence that can effect many, many people. This is pretty bad. But what happens when we’re exposed to more than one of them?

We don’t know and we don’t want to know. Even for health conscious people, it’s just too overwhelming. We’d rather do a downward facing dog than watch dog government policy. Our scientists don’t know the cumulative effects either because our health care scientific model rarely considers synergistic effects– despite a call from the National Academy of Sciences to do so. Instead we’ve been trained to look at health–one person at a time, part by part, symptom by symptom, and study by study. If the scientific model, which serves as the basis for our understanding, doesn’t begin to approach these larger scale problems and look at synergistic system-wide health effects, how can ordinary people?

When I was at CBS news in the early 1990’s, someone called to pitch a story about the widespread use of hormones in agriculture products, claiming they increased risk of cancer and caused sex-related changes. When I ran the story idea by a senior producer, together we laughed and joked about it. Of course, now research into endocrine disruption has entered the mainstream. It’s not that every theory turns out to be true. But what is true is that there are screams of anger and denial from industry and marketing shills every time a profitable product, ingredient, medical offering, or service is questioned. This creates confusion, overwhelm, and inertia leading health conscious people to think: “I can’t do anything about this. But what can I do is manage my own stress.”

If we want to reinstate a pervasive agreement that public health, safety and precaution come first, it’s up to health-conscious Americans to create the push back, to stand up and be counted. The final episode of Bill Moyers recently featured an Iowan group who joined forces to address not one cause, but all the related causes that protect citizens. We need to do that for health.

It’s time to wake up and depart the cocoon where we’ve lain dreaming that someone else is protecting public health. If you care about health, it’s not just about your diet. It’s about all of it.

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