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The Godmother of Green Health Care

A lifelong activist, Commonweal's Charlotte Brody is making the world a safer place for mothers and babies (and also men, frogs and coral).
 
 
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Nobody breastfed in Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 1970s. That was for women who were too backward or poor to take advantage of the modern miracle of infant formula. So when registered nurse and new mother Charlotte Brody decided to nurse her baby, eyebrows went up.

Brody was undeterred. As someone who had worked with striking coal miners and disabled textile workers, many of whom suffered lung ailments, she considered the wellbeing of her newborn son more important than prevailing local mores. So she steered past the formula aisle, learned how to breastfeed by reading books, and ignored the stares and whispers.

Fast forward to 1994. Brody, now a mother of two, had just resigned as the executive director of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate to join Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs' Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste when the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that would change the course of her life. The study found that medical waste incinerators – used to burn everything from soiled bandages to syringes – were the nation's number one source of dioxin, a deadly carcinogenic byproduct of burning materials containing chlorine.

The thought that Planned Parenthood had been poisoning the air sent Brody reeling.

"We thought the more waste we could incinerate, the safer we were making our patients, because incineration burned up all the hepatitis and HIV bugs," she explains in a clear, careful voice that is both sweetly melodic and utterly resolved. Brody was stunned to learn that the waste was coming back into the hospital clinic as dioxin lodged in the breasts of women "whom we were trying so hard to keep healthy until they were ready to become mothers.

"I was particularly floored because I was very attached and proud of my breastfeeding of my sons," Brody recalls. "And the idea that I downloaded 20 years of toxic chemicals into my firstborn was just shocking and outrageous and deeply depressing."

The irony that the health care industry was a major polluter was not lost on Brody. But as a lifelong activist – she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the tender age of 16 – she also spied an opening for change.

In the spring of 1996, Citizens Clearinghouse and similar groups began a series of meetings in Bolinas on the grounds of Commonweal, a nonprofit research institute recognized as a leading force in the environmental health movement. That fall, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) was born. The new coalition had a straightforward mission: make the environment safer for humans by making hospitals safer for humans.

The campaign's starting point? Medical waste.

"Since there were alternatives to incineration, there was a sense that this was a problem we could solve if we just educated people and created an effort to make social change," Brody says. "And we've done it."

By approaching hospitals with information on alternative waste disposal systems just as costly new Clinton-era emissions rules kicked in, HCWH was able to reduce the number of medical incinerators operating nationwide from an estimated 6,000 in 1994 to 100 today.

HCWH has since grown to include more than 400 member organizations in 52 countries. In keeping with an ambitious mission to green the global health care industry, HCWH has launched campaigns to rid hospitals of mercury thermometers and toxics-leaching IV bags. It encourages hospitals to buy ecologically sound medical supplies, cleaners, building materials and organic food – a greening campaign with huge potential impact when you consider that the health care industry accounts for 15 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Brody's work, too, has evolved. In addition to her role as HCWH's executive director, she is active in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which strives to get harmful substances out of makeup, lotions, deodorants and toothpaste. Most recently, in January, she took over as executive director of Commonweal. The position puts her at the helm of an eclectic organization with focus areas in cancer, health care, environmental health and juvenile justice.

For Brody, it's about reaching ever further to make a difference and striving to find the greatest leverage point. As she puts it, "I just want to be part of a global community that keeps learning how to keep making bigger, smarter transformational change."

The Right to Be Chemical-Free

The insidious nature of environmental pollutants is a deeply disturbing fact of modern life. Dioxin, for example, spews from smokestacks, drifts through the atmosphere, settles on crop fields, contaminates the meat and milk of cows and eventually shows up in the body tissue of most Americans. It can cause cancer, immune system damage, birth defects and low IQ.

Phthalates are another evil genie. Used to make shower curtains, nail polish, IV bags and countless other items, they leach into the environment like humidity and are present in the tissue of virtually every human being. In July 2002, the Environmental Working Group, a partner in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a study that found phthalates present in three-quarters of cosmetics tested. (A later project, Skin Deep, screened 7,500 beauty and body care products for the presence of phthalates and created a searchable online database.) These ubiquitous compounds have been linked to liver, kidney and lung damage and impaired development in fetuses.

This gets to the heart of Brody's philosophy on environmental health: it's about motherhood and the right of children to be born without chemical contamination. She likes to quote Katsi Cook, the Mohawk healer, midwife and environmental health researcher who says, "Women are the first environment."

"The old way was to think of the problem of industrial chemicals as: 'How much of one chemical will give a 50-year-old male worker cancer?' And as long as we all were exposed to less than that amount, we were supposed to be safe.

"I think that what we need to be aiming for is how do we create a society that encourages the birth of healthy children," Brody says. "Women of childbearing age – not just pregnant women – are the canaries in the mine. But the answer isn't to give our canaries a 10-page list of dos and don'ts. The answer is to remake the world so it's safe for them. A world that's safe for young women will also be safe for men and frogs and coral."

Healthy Patients, Healthy Planet

In her quest to remake the world, Brody has emerged as a savvy strategist with solid credentials among activists and CEOs alike. Several years ago, HCWH realized that going to individual hospitals and appealing to them to switch to safer IV bags and non-antibiotic meat was all well and good, but going to the five purchasing collectives that control 70 percent of the market was better. Today, two of the collectives have stopped offering mercury products altogether, and the rest are following suit. Some are also switching from IV bags made with PVC, which leaches phthalate, while the two biggest IV bag manufacturers have abandoned PVC.

"The health care sector is waking up to its purchasing power to drive sustainability and health care goals – healthy patients, healthy workers, healthy communities, healthy planet," says HCWH co-founder Gary Cohen. "The possibilities here are just enormous."

This kind of strategic vision has earned Brody the respect of powerful industry leaders, says Kathy Gerwig, former director of environmental stewardship for Kaiser Permanente and an HCWH board member. She started working with Brody in 1997.

"The CEO then and our CEO now, George Halvorson, have both interacted with Charlotte and Health Care Without Harm and view the organization as extremely credible partners," Gerwig says. "She can sit in a meeting and talk to Housekeeping about chemical cleaners and talk to the CEO of a $22 billion medical organization about how to be a leader in environmentally sustainable health care."

Brody is also a born collaborator, Gerwig says. "In other settings, [with] somebody like Charlotte, an activist, and someone like me on the corporate side, the natural order of things is to be adversaries," she says, "and her natural order of things is to find the nexus. There is no 'across the table' with Charlotte. You're on the same side."

Janet Nudelman, program director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund and a longtime collaborator of Brody's, most recently on the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says Brody is the same way with fellow activists.

"Anyone that's done social change work has often come out of that work feeling really bruised," she says. "People sometimes give themselves the excuse that the work is so important that relationships don't matter. Charlotte is really the antithesis of that. She really is the personification of the belief that relationships matter."

Asked what discovery has aided her most in her work, Brody takes a minute to consider. "It's that I don't know everything," she says at last. "And that some of the cultural trappings of the left are less than useful. The people who have been the champions of moving Health Care Without Harm issues in their hospitals can't all quote Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg, and I think really creating an organization where you didn't have to fit one cultural mold .... Well, you don't have to be a hiker or a biker or a Billy Bragg fan."

A Holistic View of Change

Commonweal sits on 60 windblown acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, two miles up the road from the hamlet of Bolinas and a remote hour from San Francisco along vertiginous coastal corkscrews. A few buildings huddle among clumps of trees, but otherwise the place seems deserted, a plain of blowing grasses framed against indigo foothills. Rising abruptly from the middle of this scene are dozens of ghostly radio antennas, now-silent transmitters placed there by radio's inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1913. It was here that Commonweal founder Michael Lerner was struck by inspiration one day in 1975.

"I had an image, a strong image that it might be possible to create a center there that we could use for work on both personal and planetary healing," he says. The next year, he and a group of friends started Commonweal with the goal of creating "a safer world for people and all life."

Lerner guided Commonweal for 27 years, fashioning it into a multi-dimensional institute with four areas of focus: helping people with cancer live better lives, reacquainting physicians with the spiritual aspect of healing, reforming the juvenile justice system, and fostering better health for people and the environment. When he suffered a heart attack last year, he began looking for the next generation of leadership to take over Commonweal. In January, he handed his baby to Charlotte Brody.

"Here was a person who had a lifelong commitment to poor people, workers and peace and the environment and justice," Lerner says of his successor. "So it was just a deeply natural fit for the Commonweal community. But on top of that, Charlotte is someone who is more than a good organizer. She is a really capacious thinker and a broad-gauge human being."

Nudelman concurs and observes that Commonweal, with its holistic view of creating change, is a natural home for Brody. "Commonweal is really an organization that understands the interconnectedness of things – public health, women's health, environmental justice," she says, "and it makes sense that Charlotte has arrived there because it's such a clear intellectual practice for her to see how these things relate."

Brody herself pondered the interconnectedness recently. "It's a dangerous myth to believe that you can make yourself into a healthy person on a sick planet," she said. "You can eat wild salmon instead of tuna to reduce your exposure to PCBs and mercury. You can exercise and reduce your risk of heart disease and hypertension. But we can't shop our way or lifestyle our way out of being connected to everything else on our planet."

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer based in Monterey, Calif.