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Health and environmental sustainability: two policies, one problem

Translated Monday 5 November 2007, by JD Moore

Public health.

Toxicologist André Cicolella has urged for greater awareness of the links between health and the environment.

Back in the early 1990s, Mr Cicolella submitted evidence pointing to the dangers posed by glycol ethers. In 1994, his company fired him. In October 2000 the cour de cassation, France’s highest appeal court, recognised this as wrongful dismissal and gave him his job back. Since that time, Mr Cicolella, an expert in his field, has continued to explore the links between health and the environment and supports a government ruling that protects whistleblowers. Recently he spoke for the ‘alliance for the planet’ group, an organisation within the ‘Grenelle’ umbrella of organisations, a cross-party group of organisations set up in May 2007 that meet regularly to further the government’s aim of environmental sustainability. The round-table discussion was organised by the ‘Fondation sciences citoyennes’, a citizens’ science group, together with other researchers. For the first time, organisations representing employees took part in the discussions – trade union organisations such as the CGT and the CFDT, as well as Attac, a pressure group that seeks to promote sustainable financial practices, and Greenpeace.

In an interview, Mr Cicolella was asked in an interview if he thought that this kind of prominence given to the so-called whistleblowers, and to independent experts, could ever happen within the confines of the Grenelle group.

Mr Cicolella’s response was to comment on the seriousness of the government’s intentions:

“The government never took the views of these people into account at the outset of the Grenelle talks, although things have improved since then, albeit slowly. If you look at other countries, measures to protect whistleblowers have been in place for some time. The USA brought in the Whistleblowers Act in 1992, and more recently the UK brought in the Public Interest Disclosure Act. What this demonstrates is that when the population puts pressure on the government, then the politics follow.”

- When have you suffered as a direct result of the position you have taken in the past?

- In 1994 I was virtually sacked on the spot by the INRS [Institut national de recherche et de sécurité, National Safety Research Institute] for drawing attention to the dangers of using glycol ethers a few days earlier at a symposium. As far as I am concerned I was fired as a result of pressure from the chemicals industry.

- This kind of mindset exists within the Grenelle group.

- There are plenty of conflicting viewpoints within the Grenelle, and this is to be expected. But when you have 81% of the population in favour of something like a reduction in the use of pesticides, you cannot very well ignore it.

-  Have issues on health and the environment been dealt with adequately at Grenelle?

- It could be better. You have to fight constantly. As far as we are concerned environmental health has to be at the centre of policy, not on the sidelines. We were shown a first draft of a bill that could have been written in the 60s. It was all about the precautions one should take. The draft was very much the product of a particular set of viewpoints including the position taken by the Attali commission. Then we had to deal with a report from the Academy of Science and Medicine that downplayed the impact of the environment on incidents of cancer. We got the draft kicked out, but it sneaked in by the back door. Clearly linked issues are treated in isolation. - On the same day as a Grenelle meeting on the environment there will also be a meeting on social security finance planning. Two policies, one problem. Increase in spending on health insurance is linked to increases in chronic illnesses, and yet at Grenelle the environment is discussed as if it had no direct relevance to the health of the population.

-  The stated objective is to implement 15-20 high impact measures. Are there any in there that deal with health in a meaningful way?

-  I hope so. I really hope that the internal bickering will eventually lead to something more concrete and move the argument onto the fundamentals: how we go about reducing the use of pesticides in clear stages, elimination of toxic substances including carcinogens and mutagens as well as endocrinal disrupters. We would also like to see the creation of an institution that monitors the environment, funds research into environmental pollution and toxic emissions. So much information is out there but isn’t collated in a meaningful way. Not to mention, needless to say, a government ruling to protect whistleblowers in the workplace.

Alexandre Fache

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