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Rachel Myslivy

Heartland Voices: Dr. Jennifer Lowry on Environmental Health

3 years ago | Jun 28, 2016
By: Rachel Myslivy, Program Director

CEP first came in contact with Dr. Jennifer Lowry at our recent Environmental Justice Challenges in Your Backyard panel discussion. Dr. Lowry’s passion for environmental health is contagious. The connections between our energy choices and public health are an increasing concern. We hope you enjoy this Heartland Voices blog!

Dr. Jennifer A. Lowry is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. She is Section Chief of Medical Toxicology within the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutic Innovations at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where she also serves as Director of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, Medical Director of the Center for Environmental Health, and Medical Director of the Individualized Pediatric Therapeutics Program. She's the Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health Executive Committee and a member of both the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee for the Environmental Protection Agency and Lead Poisoning Prevention Subcommittee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are you excited about regarding energy/environment

That’s hard to answer because there is so much that needs to be done. I am very excited about the "energy” from people that are concerned about the issues. There are many conversations about climate, environmental issues, and the need for change that I see more momentum than I have in the past on making those changes. From the health perspective, I see hospitals and pediatric offices trying to be more green. I see parents talking to their providers about climate change and environmental health issues. I think there is more of a movement to bring environmental health into the clinic. On an individual basis there is a lot more momentum, and I think people are standing up to take notice.

What are you concerned about?

My concern is that we are still too reactive, when we should be proactive. We need to fix a lot because of past mistakes. We’re on a dangerous spiral that many fail to see. For example, as a pediatrician and environmental toxicologist, many reporters want to talk to me about the American Academy of Pediatrics new lead poisoning policy that came out recently (listen to Dr. Lowry on NPR).  I tell them that we have to stop letting our children be the canaries in the coalmine. We can’t wait for children to get exposed and then make decisions to fix it. We need to have primary prevention. It costs a lot of money, especially when you think of all the problems that have led us to this point. We have to fix everything else before we can even start on primary prevention. It’s daunting. I think it can be done, but it’s frustrating.

The EPA looks at chemical regulation on a case by case basis. Even with the new law that came out, their hands are tied on what they can and can’t do. This is how it works: Chemicals are put on the market, and the EPA has to react based on people getting sick. This is reactive, especially when compared to the way the Food and Drug Administration does it. They test a chemical before it goes on the market. We have chemicals that mimic things that are natural in our bodies which can cause harm. Yet, they’re out there, and we don’t have many ways to stop it. So, kids get poisoned, and then we have to do something to fix it.

Even in the Argentine District in Kansas City, where we were for the environmental justice panel, it’s up to the communities to prove that air quality will be bad with an intermodal system. We know that sulfur dioxide, ozone, carbon dioxide and monoxide, lead, and nitrogen all impact air quality and respiratory diseases, but we only look at one at a time. The Clean Power Plan helps to reduce all those contaminants in the. air which will improve human health and children’s health. That’s why it’s so important that we move forward with regulations and that states recognize that need to move forward. It’s up to us to prove that it’s unsafe. If we improved air quality, then clearly we would see health benefits. We have to do what we can as we can.

Think big, what’s on the horizon?

Along lines of primary prevention, I’d like to see people asking what the possibilities are, and then aligning the risks and benefits. I’d like to see things approved only if there is a true benefit, and no risk to children. I mean, no risk. So, for instance, when we discharge patients from the hospital, I would want to know that their homes were safe from both a physical and social standpoint. How safe are these homes from the environmental standpoint? We can’t continue to put kids out in the chemical sludge of the world. We have to figure out what the dangers are and improve on the environment before we put them in it. In an ideal world, we’d have laws and regulations for primary prevention where the precautionary principle would always be used.

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