David Dyjack, DrPH, CIH
Red lionfish are native to reefs in the Indo-Pacific region but have in recent years taken up residence in the Caribbean Sea. While attractive in appearance, beneath that exotic exterior lays a hidden danger: they possess venomous spines. Scuba divers, fishermen, and aquarists recognize that while lionfish wounds are not known to be fatal, they are quite painful. Nor do these fish belong in the Caribbean Sea where they cause great ecological harm. These voracious aquatic predators have recently established residence in a sequence all too familiar in contemporary life: pet owners who discard the fish into the ocean when unable or unwilling to take care of them. In summary, lionfish are dangerous and don't belong in the Caribbean Sea.
I found myself swimming in a sea of environmental health thinkers and doers who had descended en masse upon Johns Hopkins University in March 2018 when a well-dressed, universally known, and renowned environmental health stalwart plunged a venomous spine into my heart. "Your 'people' go back to their health departments after meetings like this and they can't do anything." The individual's cell phone then chirped, an apology followed that the call needed to be taken and the individual walked off. Conversation over.
I'm struck by this perception and how commonly I encounter it. Approximately 80% of the 7,000 or so professionals who belong to NEHA are employed in the public sector. In effect, our current composition is largely governmental. The members I know come with a normal distribution of personalities but by far and away, "can't do anything" does not describe them. Of course, there are limits to advocacy in any organization, public or private, but we need to dislodge this notion that we are a unidimensional profession: good field scientists who are unable or unwilling to muscle our way into spheres where we can tender solutions to society ills. Before I offer up some ideas, let's get a handle on the problem.
Most people understand science. At the same time, most humans do not develop opinions and make decisions based on science, us included. We are genetically hardwired to respond to emotional appeals and memorable experiences. Data and facts alone generally do not overcome someone's belief developed while in an emotionally charged state. Examples are all around us. Raw milk.
Immunizations. Fluoride in drinking water. Climate change. Fire arms. Some of the most educated people I know...