A step toward saving lives
How far should the Jewish community go to protect human life? In our tradition, taking care of a health emergency is reason enough to break the Sabbath.
An-oft quoted talmudic maxim says that saving one life is tantamount to saving the world. Implicitly, the health and well being of entire communities count for even more.
That's why we welcome a resolution passed this week by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs on the environment's impact on public health. It's not apt to stir passions like West Bank settlements or a war on Iraq. Yet this policy "sleeper," by calling for a nationwide health tracking network, could do much to save lives.
Despite the medical advances brought by antibiotics and vaccines, the resolution notes, many diseases are on the rise. These include chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases and such learning and behavioral problems as autism.
Much evidence suggests environmental links to some of these illnesses.
Take breast cancer, which hits Jewish women in disproportionate numbers. Fewer than one in 20 cases arise in women with genetic defects, says professor Devra Davis, a Council on the Environment and Jewish Life board member. That means most of these cancers are likely due to something in a person's milieu.
But the work of connecting the dots has lagged, says Davis, author of "When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution."
A database like that proposed, she added, would help.
Rabbi Daniel Swartz, director of the District-based Children's Environmental Health Network, points to methyl mercury, emitted by coal-fired power plants and concentrated, via the food chain, in certain fish. Research has already linked this chemical to attention deficit disorder, low IQ and aggressive tendencies in youngsters, he says.
Alarmingly, a recent EPA report shows one of every dozen women of childbearing age has a blood mercury level that could restrict brain development in a fetus.
Beyond the nationwide tracking system, which he backs, Swartz, a former assistant rabbi at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, wants to see more done.
This could include mandatory biomonitoring - the measuring of chemicals in human bodies - by the Centers for Disease Control. That in turn takes, he says, large samples that embrace the nation's diversity (different ethnic groups react differently to some pollutants) and home in on vulnerable groups such as children.
In addition, Swartz urges air pollution monitoring by neighborhood, not just by region, as currently done, to help shield the susceptible.
We see as JCPA's move this week as a positive first step. May it lead to more advocacy throughout the Jewish community and beyond.
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, February 27, 2003