On the heels of the historic passage of health reform legislation last night on Capitol Hill, it’s no surprise that it was on everyone’s mind during today’s Opening Session of the APHA Annual Meeting in Philly. In fact, APHA Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin kicked off the session with a big smile and this quip: “How’d you like that House vote last night?” And by the sound of the whooping applause, it seemed everyone liked it, indeed.
Following Dr. B (as he’s affectionately called around the APHA offices), Philadelphia officials welcomed the nation’s largest public health gathering to their city, describing why Philly is such an appropriate meeting place for such a gathering of public health minds. It’s a city of firsts, they all said, the first city with a nursing school and a medical school, the first to have a public hospital, the first to have a medical dispensary designed to care for the poor, and the location where the first woman was awarded a doctorate of medicine. Decades later, Philadelphia is still leading the way with tobacco-free laws, celebratory child immunization rates and a happily high number of residents who walk to work. No wonder city health commissioner Don Schwarz said he feels like the “most fortunate public health official in the nation.”
A few speeches later came a well-deserved standing ovation for a late-breaking speaker, new U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin (no relation to APHA’s Dr. B), who told attendees her personal public health story. As a physician, she said, there were simply things “my prescription pad wouldn’t take care of,” such as making sure patients were breathing fresh air, drinking clean water. She told of patients having trouble with their prescription meds, not necessarily because they couldn’t pay, but because they couldn’t read the label. Or of another patient, who even though she had insurance, couldn’t afford the co-pay for the pain medication she so desperately needed. The experiences will move with Benjamin into her new office as surgeon general, where she said she is “proud to welcome 300 million Americans as new patients.”
Fellow federal official Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took to the Opening Session stage next — a woman Dr. B described as “putting the protection back into environmental health.” Illuminating the connections between environmentalism and human health, Jackson noted that “environmentalism started because of concerns over public health.”
“Environmental protection is public health protection,” Jackson said.
Near the end of her speech, Jackson called on the public health attendees to get involved in reforming the nation’s chemical management law, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act. Since the law's creation in 1976, EPA has only regulated five chemicals out of tens of thousands, Jackson said. (Shocking, right?) And with today’s kids receiving a steady infusion of chemicals even before they start to eat solid food, it’s time for a change, she said, asking for attendees’ help in making it happen.
“Help us do a better job of bringing our work together,” Jackson asked attendees.
Finally, filmmaker and granddaughter of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Celine Cousteau, spoke before the crowd to tell the story of why the health of the world’s oceans is also important for the health of the world’s people.
“It is all completely connected,” Cousteau said. “All of our actions have a reaction somewhere.”
P.S. To get involved in Jackson’s call to reform the nation’s chemical safety law, download EPA’s “Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation.”
Top: New U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin; bottom: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Photos courtesy Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography