Image courtesy of Phipps.

The phrase “toxic chemicals” conjures the image of green industrial sludge pumping into a waterway or clouds of pesticides being sprayed over a field. But the concept is far less cinematic. We can consume chemicals invisibly as we go about our day through something as mundane as a soup can.

From March 7 – 8, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens will bring together hundreds of leaders to explore the impact of chemicals on human, animal and environmental health during the 2018 One Health One Planet symposium.

The event is presented as part of the One Health Initiative, a movement to expand understanding and communication in all aspects of healthcare.

It starts with education about something as simple as those soup cans.

“A lot of canned goods have lining with BPA in them, which can get into the food,” says Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. He’s referring to Bisphenol A, an industrial chemical believed to be an endocrine disruptor and linked to a number of health issues, including breast cancer.

There are ways to avoid potentially hazardous chemicals like BPA and Phipps wants to show you how.

“Scary things” with actionable solutions

The conference aims “not only to identify what some of the issues are, but to help develop a roadmap for people who are interested in minimizing their exposure,” says Piacentini. That roadmap will include a report looking at actionable solutions people can use to decrease their exposure.

Piacentini is among the event’s speakers. He’s joined by experts including Dr. Vicki Blazer, a research fish ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Dr. Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group, and Dr. Shanna Swan, a professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

While One Health One Planet will touch on a range of topics, Piacentini expects that some of the “scariest things” people will learn are about are how industrial chemicals affect reproduction and fetal development both in humans and animals.

This symposium comes at a time when heightened consumer awareness has led some companies to cut suspicious chemicals from their products. Some water bottles, baby bottles and cans are now labeled “BPA-free.” And labels on some shampoos and cleansers now tout being paraben-free, referring to a type of man-made preservative that, like BPA, has also been identified as an endocrine disruptor. While the FDA states that the verdict is still out on exactly how BPA and parabens affect human health, it appears that people would rather be safe than sorry.

European Union authorities recently ruled to restrict the use of BPAs because of the threat they posed to human health. And yet many American consumers are just beginning to learn about these types of chemicals.

In our homes and in our environment

It doesn’t stop at products in your home. The growth of hydraulic fracturing shale gas drilling, or fracking, in the region has also led activists to question whether natural gas companies are doing enough to prevent chemicals used in the process from getting into local wells and waterways. FracTracker Alliance, an environmental nonprofit that studies, maps and communicates the risks of oil and gas development, describes “fracking fluid” as posing serious health risks, depending on how it’s used.

“We’re focused on this idea of showing how human and environmental health are connected,” says Piacentini. “This is a really important conversation to have in Pittsburgh.”

He sees the symposium fitting well with Phipps’s mission of promoting sustainability and “trying to identify lifestyles that let us live in harmony with nature.” That mission includes a number of initiatives, including encouraging visitors to switch to clean, renewable energy sources.

One Health One Planet will be held on Thursday, March 8 from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. at Phipps. An opening reception will be held on Wednesday, March 7, from 5 – 9 p.m. and will feature keynote speaker Dr. Pete Myers, founder, CEO and chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate.

The event is open to the public. Registration is required. General registration costs $99, which includes access to the opening reception and symposium. A $25 option is available for reception access only. Discounted student rates are also available.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.