Why Cousteau’s granddaughter was at a meeting on public health

Thinking large and lofty at the American Public Health Association annual meeting

Philadelphia — On brainstorming possible keynote speakers for a major public health conference, the granddaughter of ocean giant Jacques Cousteau does not exactly stand out. But in Philadelphia on Sunday, filmmaker and diver Celine Cousteau stood before the 11,000 or so attendees of the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting to explain just why exactly she was there to give the opening session’s address.

Ocean health, environmental health are undeniably connected, she said. Images of corals — one dead and bleached, one recovering and one a vibrant purple flashed on the screen overhead. Doctors use components of hard coral to repair shattered bones, she explained. Ocean warming and its accompanying acidification are killing corals, destroying a potential human treatment.

Cousteau and the other speakers at the opening session of the APHA annual meeting echoed each another, repeating the idea that the health of the environment and the humans that live in it are inextricably linked.

Also at the meeting, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson called protecting the environment an ounce of prevention that could make a huge difference in safeguarding the nation’s health. She pledged herself and her agency to working with public health officials on issues that affect both the environment and human health. Jackson noted that we live in a world of technology indeed, a low buzz of cellphones, blackberries and iPhones, almost all set to vibrate, could be heard during the session.

But we know too little about what chemicals from this surfeit of technology could be doing to our bodies, she said. Since the Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976, the EPA has issued regulations for five chemicals out of about 80,000 total, she said. She then outlined a proposal to strengthen the act.

Jackson had to pause every few sentences, as the audience cheered and applauded, when she called on industry leaders to provide better data about the substances that make up their products. The energy in the room was clear. But as the headlines about health care reform and the upcoming climate change conference in Copenhagen also make clear that protecting health and the environment are two Herculean, at times Sisyphean, tasks.

To this implicit challenge, Cousteau had some encouragement for the health officials assembled before her. She described her experience accompanying the nonprofit group Amazon Promise, which brings doctors to remote villages of the rainforest. One day, the volunteers arrived at a village to find a 9-month-old girl with a 103.8 degree fever. She had pneumonia and the doctors said she would have lived maybe two more days had the volunteers not arrived, Cousteau recalled.

The filmmaker then told the audience that, for her, helping this one young girl embodies the purpose behind work on such huge issues as climate change and health. Every little bit does matter.

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