“If you are not healthy, all the money in the world does not matter,” says Winifred Hamilton, PhD, director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Environmental Health Section. Hamilton knows. She has been inspired by her own health challenges to work toward increasing public awareness about the connection between health and the environment.
In the 1980s, Hamilton bought a 1930s bungalow in Houston. The house was in a beautiful place. It had lots of potential, and it needed lots of work.
In order to be able to afford the house, Hamilton planned to do much of the renovation herself. She had grown up doing physical work – building fish ponds and laying concrete – and thought renovating her own house would be fun and exciting. She started working on the house before moving in: Contractors came to fix the roof; Hamilton began cleaning and sanding. She knew the house had been heavily treated with chlordane and thought, “Great, I won’t have a problem with termites.” Hamilton didn’t know contact with the dust, air and soil containing chlordane would make her very ill. As she cleaned and sanded, and moved in to the house, she began to experience tremors, unclear thinking, terrible headaches and nausea. Hamilton was working as a medical illustrator at Baylor College of Medicine. The tremors caused her hands to be too unsteady to do illustration, and she thought she might be forced to change careers.
A friend mentioned that maybe the house was causing her illness. Hamilton didn’t want to believe it. She loved the house. Someone else mentioned that chlordane could cause health problems. Finally Hamilton called the Department of Agriculture and told them about her symptoms and that the house had been treated with chlordane. They told her to get out of the house immediately.
The Department of Agriculture conducted tests and found high levels of diazinon and chlordane throughout the house. Chlordane is an organochlorine pesticide that, through an agreement between its manufacturer and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can no longer be used in the US. Previously used primarily to control subterranean termites, chlordane was used extensively in the Houston area. Like another organochlorine pesticide, DDT, chlordane is extremely persistent in the environment, with a half-life of 30 to 40 years.
Before the health effects of chlordane were discovered, it was used to control roaches and other household pests. Some people may still have containers of it in their homes. For example, Hamilton said she recently found a bottle of chlordane while cleaning out her mother’s house in Michigan.
The road back to health was a long one for Hamilton. She was in the hospital for about a week for tests, and had to cut back on her work schedule. She also experienced major financial loss.
As Hamilton’s health improved, she began to think about how she could turn her negative experience into something positive. “I felt there were other people who had been exposed and not feeling as well as they might, and my experience could be put to good use,” Hamilton says.
Since then, Hamilton has become one of Houston’s major influences bringing attention to the need to protect all residents from exposure to adverse environmental factors. She began researching and writing about the environment and health topics such as indoor and outdoor pollution, benzene, and the effects of toluene in the environment. She became involved with GHASP (Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention) and is a founding member of Mothers for Clean Air and the Gulf Coast Institute.
Houston’s pollution problems are similar to other large cities, but it has a larger industrial component than most cities, according to Hamilton. She is concerned that Houston may lack the political resolve to regulate the industry, despite the benefits of doing so, and that Houston is going ahead with massive freeway expansion without adequately looking at the short-term and long-term health effects.
Hamilton says more could be done and needs to be done now. “We get too wrapped up in creating the perfect model when we could go ahead and invest in ways to encourage everyone to reduce their emissions and exposure,” Hamilton says. “We can provide HOV lanes for hybrid cars, subsidize high-speed rail for commuters or make parking so expensive people use rail.”
“Houston is a great place with wonderful people, but we need to proactively and rigorously address pollution, health and quality of life,” Hamilton adds. “Not doing so hurts its citizens and the city’s reputation.”
Hamilton lives in Houston with her husband Edward Snow, author and professor of English at Rice University. She has the following suggestions for how you can make a difference regarding health and the environment:
- Find a way to improve the environment in your neighborhood – find an area of interest, however small, and get involved.
- Educate yourself and your family on environmental health.
- Make a five year plan to reduce your contribution to pollution. Set a goal of 5 or 10 percent reduction in pollution: drive less; turn lights off in your house; and use a rake and broom instead of a blower.
- Reduce exposure to toxic cleaning products.
- Support companies that are trying to be environmentally responsible. For example, buy recycled paper products, organic fruits and vegetables, and low toxicity paints and cleaners whenever possible.
- Avoid or reduce use of pesticides.
- Check for water leaks that can create mold.
- Make sure your home is adequately ventilated.
- Avoid being in traffic as much as possible.
- Minimize dry-cleaning.
To make a difference on a larger scale:
- Join a group that has similar interests.
- Become an educated voter.
- Organize litter pickups.
Full Story: Shining a light on Houston’s environment-related health issues
Source: CLEAN Houston, July 31, 2012