February 06, 2009

Meeting explores public health, environmental law

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A symposium later this month at the Southern Illinois University School of Law will look at the interplay between protecting the public health and protecting the environment.

“Contemporary Issues at the Intersection of Public Health and Environmental Law” will bring together some of the nation’s leading legal scholars, scientists, government regulators, community activists and private attorneys.

The symposium begins at 8:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 27, in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hiram H. Lesar Law Building. The symposium will offer continuing legal education credit, and is also open to the general public. There is a fee for the buffet lunch. The lunch option is not guaranteed for those registering after Feb. 25.

Media Advisory

Reporters and photographers are welcome to cover the symposium. To make arrangements for interviews or for more information on the event, contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communications and outreach, at 618/453-8700.

The conference will examine the connection of public health and environmental protection to some of today’s most pressing issues, including the obesity epidemic, climate change and prescription drug use, law school associate professor Patricia Ross McCubbin said.

“We may take for granted that it’s important to keep pollutants out of the air or water and out of our lands, but we forget that if we protect the environment we can also protect the public from infectious diseases, cancer and other illnesses,” she said.

As the symposium highlights some of the challenges the nation faces, it “will also offer some innovative solutions for the government to create incentives for citizens and businesses to protect both the public health and environment -- rather than the government simply telling folks what to do,” McCubbin said.

She pointed to several examples where public health issues and environmental concerns intersect.

  • Antibiotics and other drugs that pass through our bodies into waterways, where they cause harm to fish, other animals, and eventually humans.

“We need those drugs for a functioning health care system, but we have to figure out how to reduce the harm to both the ecosystem and to humans after we’ve used them,” she said.

  • The obesity epidemic.

McCubbin said the issue can be addressed if communities are built that allow residents to walk to work, school, and shops, and also offer more parks to play in. Those kinds of communities also result in reduced car emissions.

  • Climate change.

While climate change might not often be considered a public health problem, a concern is that infectious diseases such as malaria, the West Nile virus, and encephalitis will spread from tropical areas into the United States and other nations as mosquitoes, ticks and other insects migrate into new warm areas, McCubbin said.

McCubbin believes those attending the symposium will gain a greater appreciation of how improving the environment can improve public health, along with practical advice about how the public, government and businesses can protect both.

The symposium’s featured speaker is B. Suzi Ruhl, a senior attorney and director of the Public Health and Law Center at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. Ruhl will examine environmental justice and public health during the working luncheon.

The Environmental Law Institute is “one of the premier think tanks” on environmental issues, McCubbin said. Ruhl has a master’s of public health degree in addition to her law degree. Prior to her work at the Environmental Law Institute, Ruhl worked as a public interest attorney representing environmental organizations against polluters and the government.

Ruhl will focus on the intersection of public health and environmental law “particularly in disadvantaged communities under the label of environmental justice,” McCubbin said. Her background represents the interplay between protecting public health and the environment.

Mae Davenport, an assistant professor in SIUC’s Department of Forestry, is part of a panel that will discuss the ecological benefits in building sustainable communities, including in Southern Illinois. Lisa M. Feinstein, a community consultant from San Francisco, will discuss the public health benefits of sustainable communities. Sustainable communities offer more multi-use opportunities, such as shopping, residential, work, and recreation spaces within walking distances.

Other symposium topics include climate change and measures that communities can implement, using public health legal concepts, to encourage local commerce that is environmentally and economically beneficial. Another panel looks at pharmaceuticals in the nation’s waterways, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s response, as well as potential alternatives.

Additional information about the symposium, along with online registration for those seeking continuing legal education credit, is available at https://www.dce.siu.edu/index.php/Conferences/Contemporary-Issues-at-the-Intersection-of-Public-Health-and-Environmental-Law Anyone in the general public who wants to be included in the $12 buffet luncheon also must register. Anyone wanting to attend the symposium without the lunch should contact the law school at 618/453-3258.

The SIU Center for Health Law & Policy and the SIU Law Journal are symposium co-sponsors.