CAPE, or the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, seeks to be the voice of Canadian medicine on environmental affairs. I sat down with CAPE’s Chair, Dr. John Howard to hear about the Association’s work, and its personal importance to him as a physician and educator. We met at his home in London, Ontario.
In Canada physicians are still recognized and appreciated. I think when we speak, we carry the respect of our own patients, we carry the scientific background that we came from, and we’re generally thought, particularly at local levels, to be leaders in the community. And we can use that leadership and respect in bringing about legislation that protects the environment.
I think the unique perspective of a physician is that they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. They come from a perspective of health. They care for the health of people and particularly the health of children and the future generations. And they also have a good scientific background so they can speak, not just rhetoric, but they can quote the literature, they can put together position papers, and they can present in a way that patients understand—and since we’re all patients—the public can understand.
Our main program is that of the pesticide program, and we were very successful in working with other organizations in creating pesticide by-laws across Canada. So 70% of Canadians now are under a pesticide by-law banning the use of pesticides on lawns. Also we are now working on getting rid of coal generation. Coal generation is a really big problem as far as creating air pollution, and for lung disease as well as heart disease. And we’ve been succesful working with the Liberal government here in Ontario getting rid of coal generation, and we’re now working with the Alberta governemnt for that.
I think that all the physicians have noted that when they’re working hard fixing diseases all the time, we sometimes have to think about those patients being a symptom of the environment or of society. And I think more and more we’re seeing the environment impacting on our patients and we need to be aware of that. So every patient coming in we have to ask, “Why is that patient here? And what can we do as physicians to prevent other patients from coming with the same problem?”
I think doctors have to think about, what is health? And traditionally we’ve thought of it as physical health and mental health, but we also have to think about social health, economic health, political health, and environmental health. And beyond that we even have to think more, we have to think of spiritual health and moral health. What we have to start thinking is, are we, as human beings, morally healthy when it comes to the environment. Are we morally healthy when it comes to the world that supports us? And I think we have to start thinking really big. And I think, not only as physicians, but as governments we have to think of looking after our whole selves.