CHE Director Elise Miller, MEd
Heeding a Chemical Wake-Up Call
When Elise Miller, MEd, was growing up in the coal-mining country of southwest Virginia, she went for a hike with her uncle in the Shenandoah Mountains. They passed a creek. Her uncle warned her not to drink the water, and the warning stunned her. “Why?" she asked. "What’s wrong with it?” His answer about pollution, then such an abstract concept to her, didn’t satisfy her.
Later, when her family moved to Richmond, Virginia, the wind sometimes blew from the southeast, carrying the sulfuric reek of the paper mills in a nearby town.
"The smell was just awful," she says. "I remember wondering, 'Is that right? Are things supposed to smell that much?'" That kind of questioning marked the germination of what became her lifelong interest in environmental health.
Miller faced the stark reality of these concerns when, after college, she traveled on a scholarship to study freedom of the press in India. She visited the city of Bhopal, just ten months after an accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant choked the city with a cloud of poisonous gas. (At least 3,800 people were immediately killed and thousands more were disabled. In 2004, Amnesty International estimated the cumulative death toll in the twenty years since the Bhopal accident is 22,000 people.) Talking with those who survived the poisoning, Miller awakened to "the horrors of what chemical contamination can do to a community, and the potential implications of globalization for human health and communities."
If Bhopal evoked Miller's awareness of environmental health issues, becoming director of the Jenifer Altman Foundation in 1993 immersed her in them. She worked closely with Michael Lerner, PhD, founder and president of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute. Through their deliberations on how to best prioritize and leverage the Foundation’s investments, she met people like Drs. Theo Colborn and Pete Myers, scientists who were spearheading a revolutionary way of discerning the impact of environmental exposures on human and ecological health.
Miller also credits the prominent ecologist and author Dr. Sandra Steingraber for opening her eyes to the human rights concerns inherent in promoting environmental health.
"I heard Sandra tell the story of how she circulated some of her own expressed breast milk at a United Nations meeting in Geneva and said, 'Did you know that this is one of the most contaminated human foods there is?' That was a wake-up call to me. What a dilemma for women all over the world. On one hand, breastfeeding is the best way to nurture children; and on the other, breast milk contains dozens of industrial chemicals that neither women, nor their children, ever asked to be put in their bodies—chemicals that are shown to impact neurological, reproductive and immunological health. Learning this was a major impetus for me starting my own nonprofit on children’s environmental health.”
Indeed, Miller left the Jenifer Altman Foundation in 1998 and founded the national Institute for Children's Environmental Health. Through her years as executive director of ICEH and in her roles as a co-founding CHE Partner, coordinator of the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, founding coordinator of CHE-Washington, and co-chair of the Parkinson’s Disease and the Environment working group, she has won widespread respect for her dedication, strategic acumen and leadership skills. In 2008, the U.S. EPA honored her with a Children's Environmental Health Champion Award. Now she brings her considerable talents to her new role as Director of CHE.
Her transition comes at a dynamic time, with both scientific and political progress on the horizon.
"One of the greatest challenges," she says, "is that much of the legitimate science, particularly in the last decade, has been either obscured or misconstrued or consciously biased so that the public has not been aware of the connections between the chemical soup we live in and the increase in the incidence of so many diseases and disabilities.
"I see some hope and inspiration, however, in the fact that some important scientific studies on low-dose exposures have recently been translated into regulatory and manufacturing actions. The impetus to ban bisphenol-A and phthalates comes to mind. Another significant development is the REACH [Regulation for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals] legislation in Europe. Though it is having its challenges in the implementation stage, it's nevertheless exciting that Europe has taken a significant lead on chemical policy reform."
Miller hopes the United States may soon play catch-up in this realm.
The Obama transition team members, who invited Miller and a diverse group of environmental health and justice colleagues from around the country to Washington, DC to discuss chemical policy reform, “were extraordinarily receptive to hearing our concerns about environmental health issues," she says. "Our work is definitely still cut out for us--and of course, the economy is challenging at best--but the new Administration’s attentiveness has been encouraging."
As Miller becomes Director of CHE, she expects her fundamental mission will remain the same: “to translate environmental health research into practices on every level of society that elevate and sustain the health of all people--whether those in the poorest inner-city neighborhoods or the most remote communities.
“This has to be done on a systemic level,” she added. “We have to get that environmental health issues are inextricably connected to the health of our economy and the health of our ecology.”
What does Miller plan to do first in her new role?
“Build on CHE’s work to date by bringing together the leading disease and disability groups that are now educated on environmental health science to take a collective stand, essentially saying, ‘The system is broken. Too many people are getting sick. We have to invest TODAY in green chemistry, healthy schools, safer products, renewable energy and sustainable businesses.’
"In short, every job has to become a green job, and all children, no matter where they are born, should have a chance to reach their full potential, unimpeded by environmental contaminants and socioeconomic disparities.”
Miller paused. “Okay, well, maybe not all that can happen ‘first,’ but I believe we have to hold that vision and work towards it, step by collaborative step.”