August 3rd 2021 | Published by the National Observer
Next year, I turn 50. I look at this as officially mid-life (yes, I plan to live to at least 100, and I have warned my children). This impending milestone has me reflecting. I’ll be honest — it is provoking a bit of a mid-life crisis. And it’s not the kind of crisis I think I should be having.
In 1972, the year I was born, the journal Nature published a paper that accurately predicted the climate crisis and the role of humans in bringing it about. I grew up with parents working in occupational and environmental health and justice issues. I was influenced by messages of the need for healthy environments, avoiding toxic exposures, the role of industry in government decisions and social justice movements.
I watched my parents soak fruits and vegetables in soapy water in the sink to remove pesticides and herbicides. I listened at community meetings my siblings and I attended where my folks engaged in health and safety advocacy. I watched my mom, my dad, my stepdad on TV, talking about health risks and the need for legal and regulatory action on harmful exposures in environments. At 10, I gave a speech at a local Mother’s Day peace march calling for nuclear disarmament. I spent my 20s and 30s in university and working — often with my parents — combining communications and research on environmental health.
Now, at almost 50, as the toxics campaign director with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), I’m honoured to have a voice on environmental health. (I also wonder what my physician grandfather would think about these problems and CAPE’s work). But as I sit on the edge of half a century on this planet, as a mother of two, I can’t help feeling like I shouldn’t have to do this job.
The knowledge generated in the last 50 years on climate change, toxic exposures, gendered health impacts, environmental racism, worker health and safety, and more is immense. Why then, like the outspoken child I was at 10, do I need to address these problems of environmental connections to health — and now for my own children, aged 10 and 12?
Feeling the heat
I have always loved summer. As a child, I looked forward each year to the family camping trips we’d take, lapping up each moment in provincial parks, hiking trails, canoeing, swimming and attending nature conservation programs. I thought the most extraordinary thing anyone could be was a park naturalist. I became a junior ranger and went on to work a summer in my then dream job in Killarney Provincial Park. I presented programs on the region’s environment and history, shared stories with park visitors of the area’s Indigenous peoples, led guided hikes by foot and canoe, hosted campfire singalongs and baked bannock with campers.
I have fostered my love of the natural environment in my daughters, who, like me, love camping and hiking in parks. From experience, which is now documented in scientific evidence, I know the mental and physical health benefits of being in nature. Summer as I knew it, though, is a thing of the past. The heat has become deadly.
A fight for survival
My daughters know from their climate action, our network of family and friends, awareness of my PhD study on environmental breast cancers and their own schooling that ecologically produced health harms plague the world they live in. This reality became much clearer through COVID-19. They have heard my relentless message that health is nested and is the product of our environments and social structures. I wish they knew this only abstractly and not because they recognize what needs to change for their and the planet’s future health.
I collaborate with brilliant, committed, evidence-driven physicians and other experts in environmental health. I feel like I am living my life’s purpose. For that, I am grateful. But in this mid-life reflection, it doesn’t seem right that this should be the case.
We can and should do better. At 50, and in the years after, my work for environmental justice, health protections and illness prevention will necessarily continue unabated — including campaigning for a Canadian Environmental Protection Act that is modernized and forward-thinking with disease prevention and health promotion in mind.
I hope that my daughters will face a much different mid-life crisis than I am. However, unless we dramatically act now on the drivers of climate change and toxic exposures, I am afraid they will be fighting in their mid-lives for their and their children’s very survival.
Photo by Dale Molnar