I have to admit it. My eyes welled when I heard Chief Justice John Roberts call Barack Obama "Mr. President." And no, I couldn't count the number of times chills raced through my body, or smiles consumed my face, on that historic day. Wouldn't even venture a guess.

As a child, my political consciousness was weaned on the civil rights movement. My clearest and most tangible memory from those historic days is of the morning after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. I worked at a sporting goods store in Indianapolis that sold out of ammo first thing in the morning.

So, you could count me among those who would answer "No" to the question du jour on Inauguration Day, "Did you ever think you'd see the day?"


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On the Trail: Autism and the Environment
A journalistic journey into autism and industrial chemicals


But now that the improbable has happened, and an African American occupies the Oval Office and is seriously talking about the environment and says he wants to hear our ideas, here's what I say to him after a career spent writing about the environment perched atop a vast, toxic wasteland.

"Global warming, as disastrous as it is, is just the tip, Mr. President. Adopt the Precautionary Principle. I'll work with you on that one."

***

In fact, I'm already on the job. In December, the political newsletter CounterPunch published in its subscriber-only print edition an investigative report I wrote titled "Tracking the Cause of Autism." It detailed the expanding body of science that says environmental factors, not genetics or vaccines, are the prime suspects in the meteoric rise in autism diagnoses since the onset of the anti-environmental Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s.

"The Precautionary Principle would place the burden for proving that chemicals released into the environment are safe on those who produce or release the chemicals."

I've also submitted a 2,000-word piece for NUVO in Indianapolis outlining Indiana's higher-than-average rates of toxic pollution and autistic children.

Both pieces call on Obama and Indiana officials to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a means of protecting our children from environmental threats.

The Precautionary Principle would place the burden for proving that chemicals released into the environment are safe on those who produce or release the chemicals. For as long as the United States has had environmental policy, responsibility has fallen to the public to prove chemicals are dangerous.

The quantifiable result of this laissez-faire approach to environmental protection is 80,000 synthetic chemicals approved for release into the environment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The still-being-quantified results are the growing number of children with pervasive developmental disorders, like autism.

Even scientists who are skeptical about the rising incidence of autism acknowledge the likelihood that environmental factors play a role in its development. Consider a January 2005 article in the journal Acta Paediatr titled "Incidence of autism spectrum disorders: changes over time and their meaning," from a British researcher who denied there is an "autism pandemic."

"A true risk due to some, as yet to be identified, environmental risk factor cannot be ruled out," wrote Michael Rutter from London's Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College.

***

Indiana environmental writer Thomas P. Healy has likewise been on the job, for quite a while.

"For as long as the United States has had environmental policy, responsibility has fallen to the public to prove chemicals are dangerous."

On Sept. 19, 2004, he wrote a story titled "The Precautionary Principle: Science in the public interest" about Hoosier citizens calling for its adoption following release of a study called "Chemical Trespass" from the Pesticide Action Network North America. It said many Americans are exposed to pesticides at levels "well above officially permitted thresholds established by government health and environmental agencies."

"Many of the pesticides we carry in our bodies can cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects or weaken our immune systems," the study authors said.

The report found the chemical "body burden" was most pronounced in children, Mexican-Americans and adult women. Healy quoted Dr. Indra Frank, a medical doctor and Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) board member, who announced the report's findings at an Indiana Public Health Association meeting in West Lafayette.

"It should be of concern to everyone that children are susceptible," Frank told Healy in a phone conversation after the conference. "I really am concerned that if our society continues in the mode we're currently in we're going to see increasing health effects -- we're hurting ourselves."

He also quoted Rae Schnapp, HEC's Wabash Riverkeeper, who has a doctorate from Purdue University's agriculture school.

"There are still a lot of unknowns about these chemicals that we're spreading all over the landscape," she told Healy. "Who knows what the long-term effects are?"

"Hence, the need for precaution, Mr. President." That's what I'd say.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.