Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Ecological Medicine

Ecological Medicine“Ecological medicine” is a term coined by Carolyn Raffensperger, SEHN’s executive director, in 2001 for a new field of inquiry and action to reconcile the care and health of ecosystems, populations, communities, and individuals. (See – Utne, Our Planet, Our Selves)

The health of Earth’s ecosystem is the foundation of all health. Human impact in the form of population pressure, resource abuse, economic self-interest, and inappropriate technologies is rapidly degrading the environment. This impact, in turn, is creating new patterns of human and ecosystem poverty and disease. The tension among ecosystem health, public health, and individual health is reaching a breaking point at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century.

Read the brief statement describing ecological medicine and “The Case for Ecological Medicine”. (The Networker, Vol. 7 No. 4, October 2002)

SEHN’s science director, Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., is an authority on environmental links to reproductive and developmental disorders, neurotoxicity, and other public health problems. His books Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment (MIT Press, 1999) and In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development (Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2000) describe what scientists know and suspect about environmental causes for a host of disorders from learning disabilities to cancer. They also describe the great uncertainties and the limits of science in establishing links between cause and effect.

Breast cancer, scientific uncertainty, and the rise of women’s activism: A detective story


Dr. Ted Schettler & Carolyn Raffensperger

With Kaitlin Butler and Ann Manning


Carondelet Center, Sisters of Saint Joseph

Event Center, Room G-1

1890 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55105


October 21, 2015, 7pm-9pm


Free and Open to the Public

RSVP appreciated – Seating is Limited: email

Up until the late 1990’s, health decisions were made like most other science-based decisions: you waited for scientific certainty, then you acted. This approach seemed to work for problems considered to have a single “cause” and a single effect (for example, vitamin C deficiency causing scurvy or a virus causing polio).*


By the 1980s, it was obvious that waiting for scientific certainty wasn’t working for the emerging problems of the 21st century. These problems were characterized by long delays between cause and effect, many “insignificant” causes adding up to a big effect, and the ominous rise of chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and cancer.


Breast cancer is a case in point.  Over the course of one generation the prevalence of breast cancer rose from one-in-25 women to one-in-8.


Twenty years ago, SEHN recognized that waiting for scientific certainty meant that dead bodies had to pile up before action could be justified. To SEHN’s small staff, this meant we needed to change the way science is used in decisions.


Scientific uncertainty is not a reason to delay action. On the contrary, scientific uncertainty is, itself, a compelling reason to take action soon. If we are flying blind, we need to slow down, ask ourselves what harm might lie ahead in the fog of uncertainty, and consider alternative ways of navigating the future.


Soon SEHN began creating and applying some very practical tools like the precautionary principle, which reverses the role of scientific uncertainty in decision-making. In the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that an activity is not harmful falls on those taking an action. A second tool is the “cumulative impacts” approach to complex problems like breast cancer, asthma or global warming. Using this approach, scientists and citizens abandon the search for a single cause, aiming instead to consider many contributing causes which, intertwined and mutually reinforcing, add up to produce harm. A third tool comes straight from the origins of American government, which derives its legitimacy from the “consent of the governed,” as the Declaration of Independence tells us. How can residents in communities give or withhold their consent? A fourth – and even more fundamental – tool comes from an ancient theory of government that stands in contrast to the view that government’s main responsibility is to protect private property, and to suggest instead that the purpose of government is to protect the common wealth and the common health of all of its citizens.


These tools unfolded from the everyday experience of regular people and communities who knew something was terribly wrong with the cavalier dismissal of pesticides, radiation and radioactivity, food additives, water contaminants, the sedentary lifestyle, too much “screen time” and more. With the extraordinary leadership of the breast cancer community, SEHN has found ways to change the rules of the game. Now communities are changing the rules for fracking, for pipelines, for coal plants, and for other projects that threaten our health, our children, our future.


Come learn about the next chapter in this story of science, women’s leadership and new, practical rules for changing the game. How to protect future generations is a detective story, but it’s no mystery.


Please join us.  Everyone is welcome.




*Of course we now recognize that vitamin C deficiency itself does not have a single “cause,” nor does exposure to the poliovirus, so even these “simple” cause-and-effect examples were being misconstrued.

New Updates for A Story of Health, Multimedia eBook

One in ten children has asthma. . . One in six children has a developmental disability…A Story of Health cover Although still rare, childhood leukemia has increased by 55% over the past 35 years…
These are powerful statistics, but the relationships between our natural, built, and social environments are complex and sometimes difficult to understand. A Story of Health multimedia eBook explores the complicated answers behind how or why a person gets sick or develops a disability.

January Networker is now available

SEHN Networker Volume 20 (1) January 2015
Reconnecting medicine with public environmental health:
an Ecologic Framework 

Dear Friend,

We wish to send along deep gratitude for your support as we work together to advance a holistic environmental health framework in law, science and policy. 2014 was a tremendously successful year for SEHN, none of which would have been possible without your partnership. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with you this year, as we strive to ensure that future generations inherit a livable planet.


New Release! The Ecology of Breast Cancer: The Promise of Prevention and the Hope for Healing

EcologyofBCcover.aspx“Dr Schettler makes a convincing case that we must look more broadly at breast cancer to understand it. If we are able to understand the individual biology and lifestyle along with the world the individual inhabits,we will surely have a better chance not only of helping people live once they’ve been diagnosed, but keeping them from going through the devastation of getting cancer in the first place. I hope we listen carefully to what The Ecology of Breast Cancer tells us and explore the area of the unknown that it identifies.”

-Susan Braun, Board of Directors, Commonweal; breast cancer advocate

NOW AVAILABLE IN PRINT VERSION FROM AMAZON: click here. For downloads: see below.


Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging
October, 2008

This report primarily examines the lifetime influences of environmental factors on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and their underlying pathologic mechanisms. Our close look at the science of these diseases shows they are related to a number of features of modern society and that Alzheimer’s disease especially is linked to other serious health problems of modern times, which we call the “western disease cluster.”