What's Turning America's Doctors Green?

The Case for Ecologically Sustainable Medicine

by Randy Peyser

From community-based Earth Day events, to magazines on sustainability and "green" conferences, the environmental movement has inspired some to work tirelessly toward saving the planet, and motivated others to at least toss the right container in the correct recycling bin for garbage pick up every week. However, in spite of our collective efforts, both large and small, there is still one area of environmental awareness in which, even after twenty years of educating ourselves, we are sorely missing the mark.

According to Dr. Joel Kreisberg DC, an adjunct faculty member at JFK University, members of the 'green community,' and the community-at-large, have entirely neglected the area of 'green medicine.' Says Kreisberg, "The medical industry is the second largest part of the Gross National Product for the entire American culture, yet there has been little accomplished in regards to the many environmental issues surrounding medicine itself."

Kreisberg believes that, "if we're going to create a sustainable culture, we'll need health care to join in to the general 'greening' of our world." Within the medical community, he explains that, in particular, there is a serious problem concerning toxic waste. Citing our reliance on pharmaceutical drugs as the major culprit, due to the amount of waste they generate, the avid environmentalist poses the question, "Where do drugs come from and where do they go?"

"When dealing with the waste stream, you have to realize that hormones and antibiotics are washed back into our oceans, our animals, and our food products," Kreisberg explains, citing a recent study published in Alternative Therapies, by researchers, Albrecht and Schutte. The pair investigated the effects of the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, and discovered that the risks of this common approach included: the development of bacteria resistant to antibiotics; adverse effects in the animals themselves; and feces containing antibiotics that were leaching into the ecosystem.

Kreisberg has every reason to be alarmed. "Recent research from the American Water Works Research Association has found significant amounts of drugs, herbicides, fragrances, birth-control hormones, and weed killers in America's drinking water. We will increasingly discover more examples of ecological decline as we continue to consume more pharmaceutical medicines that end up in the environment or in our bodies. Did you know that the average baby being born in the United States right now is being born with over 200 chemicals in their system?"

Although the World Health Organization has recognized the problem of overuse, and consequential lack of effectiveness of antibiotics they have taken no steps to curtail the problem. In order to combat this situation, Kreisberg advocates the implementation of sustainable practices as a first line of defense before antibiotics are indiscriminately prescribed.

In the process of determining those sustainable practices that could contribute to that first line of defense, the Berkeley-based chiropractor and health care educator has identified numerous health-related practices that generate little-to-no negative waste. These include many cost-effective, preventative forms of treatment, such as exercise, right diet, mind/body meditation practices, and other forms of stress reduction, among many others.

"Ecologically Sustainable Medicine is medicine that is good for people and good for the planet. It doesn't generate any waste," says Kreisberg, who coined the term, 'Ecologically Sustainable Medicine or ESM,' to describe the kinds of practices that consider the health of the planet along with the needs of the people. Realizing that the environmental effects of medicine are not taught in medical schools, Kreisberg took it upon himself to develop environmentally based programs to educate the entire healthcare system about these issues.

He also suggests a slight change be made to the Hippocratic Oath, stating that "the Hippocratic Oath says, 'first do no harm.' I find it ironic and appalling that conventional, allopathic medicine - though powerful and sometimes extremely effective - also poses an incredible threat to our health with its over-reliance on pharmaceutical and high-technology-based medicines, while ignoring options for safe, effective, and more sustainable treatments that do no harm. I believe the oath should read: 'do more good.'"

Fueled by his passion, he created the Teleosis Institute, named after the Greek term meaning "greater self-realization." The institute is a not-for-profit organization, in which an ongoing discussion occurs, and where resources for 'greening' America's healthcare system are shared among those who practice different forms of medicine. What began as a small backyard enterprise four years ago, has turned into a staff of 8 employees, with five interns, 22 regional coordinators, and a cadre of members throughout the United States - from physicians and nurses, to acupuncturists, chiropractors, bodyworkers, osteopaths, and naturopaths, among others.

Famed author and physician, Dr. Larry Dossey, who has researched the correlation between prayer and health, Connie Grauds, founder of the Association of Natural Pharmacists, and Dr. Ben Kligler, medical director of New Beth Israel Center for Health and Healing sit on the Advisory Board. Kreisberg, who teaches college classes in Ecologically Sustainable Medicine, is pleased that both mainstream physicians across the country, as well as alternative practitioners, are participating.

While mainstream physicians and alternative practitioners have oftentimes experienced adversarial relationships, the conversation about 'green medicine' allows the two sides to come together under the same banner. "I'm very passionate about creating a healthy planet and human health," he says. "Clean air, safe food, pure water, proper housing, safe workplace, safe transportation, and healthy global climate are all physical influences on good health, and the weakening of any of these environment factors can have grave consequences on individuals, societies, and planetary health.

You don't have to practice alternative medicine or believe in allopathic medicine to want to believe in sustainable medicine and a healthy environment. This issue of 'green medicine' allows us a different debate. We all know that a healthy environment is going to benefit our health, and that if we do not have a healthy environment, we cannot be healthy."

As a way to educate more people, Kreisberg created a quarterly journal called, "Symbiosis: A Journal of Ecological Sustainable Medicine, and founded a national "ESM (Ecologically Sustainable Medicine) Network," that provides a way for medical practitioners to support one another in continuing the conversation about 'green medicine.'

He also operates a number of small clinics that provide cost-effective services for people who have no healthcare. One project in Oakland, CA, currently in development will provide regular, preventative care to parolees who would otherwise face staggering hospital charges if they were to end up sick. "I call what I do, 'Ecological Wellness Care,' says Kreisberg, "which focuses on what you can do to be well. By providing a mix of complementary and mainstream medicine, people don't end up getting as sick as often."

There is much that those who participate in the health care industry can do to create a safer, healthier planet while improving the health of the global community. Kreisberg encourages healthcare practitioners to view themselves more and more as environmental stewards. "As stewards, they must expand their understanding of environmental harm beyond such issues as coal-fired power plants and automobile pollution, to include the tools they routinely use, including the more detrimental modern pharmacological solutions that are used today."

For example, "In the research conducted by Albrecht and Schutte, as mentioned above, the two also studied the efficacy of homeopathic medicines versus antibiotics as a preventative measure for respiratory illness in pig farming, and were able to prove that the incorporation of homeopathics into the pig's diets was far more effective than the antibiotics themselves concerning the rate of disease and incidence of respiratory diseases in the animals that were studied. In fact, the study showed that the only prevention for disease that would have been as effective as homeopathy would have been to give the pigs therapeutic doses of antibiotics all the time."

Kreisberg concludes that if more healthcare practitioners embraced the idea of being environmental stewards and turned increasingly to more alternative forms of medicine, while decreasing the rampant use of pharmaceuticals, the health of our planet and its people would vastly improve, stating that, "before we risk the long-term consequences of many of our medical interventions, sustainable medical practices should be considered first. This emphasis will greatly reduce the ever growing damage mainstream medicine is creating to our environment, not to mention to the sustainability of our own long-term, personal health."

Citing the study above, Kreisberg believes that the use of sustainable alternatives will not in any way reduce our success in improving our health, but rather, will most likely significantly improve the general health of all beings on the planet. For practitioners who want to embrace the 'green medicine' concept, Kreisberg has designed a three-phase program:

In the first phase, practitioners can take responsibility for 'greening' their physical environment, which could include anything from recycling paper in the office (pollution prevention), to replacing regular light bulbs with compact fluorescents, (energy conservation); to installing low flow aerators on showerheads (water conservation).

In the second phase, individuals can choose to become environmental advocates. At this level, practitioners will take it upon themselves to learn about the local issues effecting the environment in their area, and educate their patients about the choices they can make.

The third phase consists of individuals who want to commit to practicing Ecologically Sustainable Medicine. This phase is for those who feel a deep calling to improve the health of the planet and who are willing to commit to predominantly making choices that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and which will generate little-to-no waste in the process.

By creating three distinct phases, Kreisberg hopes that everyone within the medical community will feel comfortable in joining the conversation at some level. "My goal is to add medicine and health to the discussion of creating a sustainable society and culture," he says. "When I began this, I'd notice a green festival or a group of activists busy saving the environment, but no one was talking about health. At every event - from the Bioneers Conference to the green festivals - we all, as a community, should begin to include 'green medicine' in our conversations about creating a sustainable planet.

While medicine is not going to turn into a 'green system' overnight, Kreisberg believes that there should be a representative at both tables. "At the environmentalist table there should be a physician or health care provider, and at the physicians' table, there should be somebody representing the environment and greening medicine," he says. "We need to keep reminding ourselves that it's not enough to save lives; we have to be concerned with our overall quality of life as well."

According to Kreisberg, there's actually no way for us to turn back from having this discussion. Instead, he believes that we are going to see an increasing need for sustainable medicine, both from an economic perspective, and also because the environment will not be able to sustain the types of chemicals and drugs that we're continuing to offload into our oceans and dump sites without reaping negative consequences.

"The physical environment is a very large determinant of our health," he says. "With today's easy access to information, every healthcare practitioner should make it a part of their ongoing education to keep up with local environmental issues, particularly when it comes to air, water, and contamination of land, which directly impact the health of their patients. It is also the responsibility of primary practitioners to understand and recognize the effects of environmental contamination and to be able to offer viable treatment or make proper referrals to specialists for treatment when necessary."

Kreisberg advocates the use of Sustainable Medicine as the first line of defense when treating illness and that mainstream choices should only be used if these approaches prove insufficient to restoring health - with the awareness that these choices may have unintended negative consequences on the environment.

"As we struggle with the issues of the environment, we will increasingly see the opportunity to make wiser choices. When we value the planet's overall health, we actually can choose medical practices and procedures that create less waste and have a better impact upon the environment as well."

Dr. Joel Kreisberg can be reached at www.teleosis.org.


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