A scene from CHE's 2012 conference in New York

Founding of CHE


In 2001, Michael Lerner, founder and president of Commonweal, and Steve Heilig, director of Public Health & Education for the San Francisco Medical Society, generated an idea for a new network that would bring together people who were concerned about environmental health, particularly toxics, but who traditionally tended not to work together.

CHEStaffAtCW2011Simultaneously, Lerner was also talking with Pete Myers, Charlotte Brody and Gary Cohen about the need for such a network. Myers is the founder of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and co-author of Our Stolen Future.  Brody and Cohen were co-founders of Health Care Without Harm and have been instrumental in spawning other strategic initiatives to forward environmental health priorities. These colleagues all became involved in envisioning what a partnership like this might look like.

The inaugural conference that led to the creation of CHE was held at the San Francisco Medical Society on March 21, 2002 and co-sponsored with Commonweal. Shortly thereafter a smaller group of researchers, health professionals, representatives of major health-affected organizations and environmental health and justice advocates met at Commonweal.

The group addressed two fundamental questions. 1) Given the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases and disabilities, what do we know from the science about the role of the environmental exposures?  and 2) How can we make the emerging environmental health science more accessible to researchers, health professionals, health-affected groups and the general public in order to press for upstream prevention of these major health concerns?

“From the outset, we thought of CHE as a network of health-affected groups and others interested in environmental contributors to health conditions,” said Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network and CHE. “Many groups existed then, but often worked in isolation. We believed that, collectively, they could tell a story that would be much more powerful than each one speaking alone. And I think we continue to feel that way.”

Over a couple days of concerted discussions, the following tenets emerged and became the cornerstone for developing CHE’s mission and goals:

  1. We have an epidemic of chronic disease in this country and around the world.
  2. 70% of these diseases are preventable.
  3. Investing more resources into prevention rather than just treatment is not only prudent, but critical for a healthy, more equitable society.
  4. Identifying and reducing environmental toxicants related to these diseases is essential.
  5. Taking precautionary action must be an integral part of any plan to broadly improve health.


Below is a letter written by Michael Lerner, PhD, President of Commonweal, to the participants of the 2002 meeting that founded CHE. It underscores the vision that served as impetus for the establishment of CHE:

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner

Imagine... I want to invite you to join me in imagining a future when the people gathered in this room could together make a greater contribution than we already are making to the emerging environmental public health movement. These are 21 of my personal images of what it might look like if environmentally health affected groups and concerned health professionals become active participants in the emerging environmental health movement. They are simply one contribution to the dialogue I hope will be strengthened over the coming years.

I. Imagine a day two years from now when there are well briefed spokespeople for a dozen or more environmentally health affected groups and health professional organizations in ten different states, and the number of such loosely affiliated state and regional collaboratives is growing.

II. Imagine that breast cancer groups, childhood cancer groups, endometriosis, asthma, birth defect and autism groups, and others with established track records of environmental health advocacy, find themselves joined in these collaborative networks by larger cancer organizations, larger birth defect organizations, larger learning disabilities groups, and a growing number of other organizations as concerned with infertility, immune disorders, and other environmentally linked conditions.

III. Imagine there is deep commitment to civility and mutual respect among these groups, the fruit of a mature awareness of the different methods by which different groups can "climb the mountain" of growing awareness of the role of environmental factors in different diseases. Imagine that these groups recognize that their communication styles, standards of scientific evidence, and interest in environmental health policy and advocacy issues as compared with patient services and research will vary enormously.

IV. Imagine that some of these organizations of health affected groups and health professionals, large and small, local and environmental justice groups and occupational safety and health groups.

V. Imagine that following these literature reviews and discussion of their findings with expert medical and scientific consultants, some of these organizations adopt resolutions expressing their concern with environmental health factors in the etiology of these diseases, calling for more research. Imagine that some of these resolutions note that the organization and its members are concerned not only with the environmental toxicants that may ultimately be found to play a role in their specific disease, but also with the environmental toxicants that may contribute to so many other diseases.

VI. Imagine that some of these resolutions also commit these organizations to a precautionary, public health approach to assessing the weight of the evidence regarding the linkages between the diseases of concern and the environment.

VII. Imagine that some of these resolutions also commit these organizations to the support of right-to-know laws, such as Proposition 65 in California, that enable citizens to be aware of what environmental toxicants they are exposed to.

VIII. Imagine that some of these state or regional organizations are in loose but effective collaborative communication with each other, sharing concerns, dilemmas and experiences as they explore how to add environmental public health concerns to their heavy organizational burdens of raising money for research and services, providing support and education to their members, and combating discrimination against those faced with these diseases and disorders.

IX. Imagine that some of the state collaboratives are in loose but effective collaborative communication with national networks that reflect the different needs and styles of different organizations of health affected people and health professionals.

X. Imagine that these collaborative networks have no single center, are not controlled by any single organization, and reflect a growing body of experience regarding what groups work most effectively in close coordination and what groups work better when they come together on specific issues of shared concern.

XI. Imagine that well briefed representatives of some of these organizations are prepared to testify before boards of supervisors, city councils, state legislatures, or the United States Congress regarding their concern with clean air, clean water, and safe food, on other shared concerns such as the need for more research, the benefit of precautionary public health approaches to interpreting the weight of the evidence, the right of citizens to know what environmental toxicants they are exposed to, and other shared concerns.

XII. Imagine that some of these well briefed representatives are also prepared to engage with sectoral initiatives of special concern to them, such as environmentally safe hospitals, environmentally safe schools and playgrounds, environmentally safe consumer products, and other similar concerns.

XIII. Imagine that some of these same spokespeople are prepared to respond when critically important new scientific studies or factually grounded media reports identify new linkages of concern between environmental factors and public health.

XIV. Imagine that some of these patient groups and health professionals groups who share concerns with environmental toxicants in the etiology of these diseases also recognize the deep linkages between their concerns and those of environmental justice groups and occupational safety and health groups.

XV. Imagine that some of these groups therefore see the special importance of fence-line communities, disease cluster communities, and occupational disease exposures, such as those of farmworkers and chemical workers, and recognize that low-income communities, communities of color, and occupational communities are often the "canaries in the mineshaft" of the environmental health and justice movements.

XVI. Imagine that the American environmental public health movement strengthens links to the international environmental public health movement, learning from the experiences of countries where laws and corporate practices are better than they are in the United States, as is the case in much of Europe, as well as from countries where laws and corporate practices afford citizens far less protection than we have in the United States.

XVII. Imagine that these efforts slowly raise the level of public and professional awareness of the depth of the linkages between human health, animal health, and ecosystem health, so that the research disciplines related to ecological health become a core part of the curricula at medical, veterinary, public health, environmental and other research and academic institutions.

XVIII. Imagine that the day comes soon when states and the federal government strengthen their capacity to track the incidence of environmentally related diseases, and the body burdens that we all carry of persistent bioaccumulative toxicants that may contribute to these diseases, with the same care and concern that government tracks economic indicators, as proposed by Trust for America's Health.

XIX. Imagine that environmental health becomes one of the defining human rights issues of the new millennium. For example, imagine that the right of women to carry to term and breastfeed their babies toxic-free becomes a symbol of this quest for freedom from a new kind of environmental bondage.

XX. Imagine that in working together for the prevention of environmentally related diseases we also find common cause on other concerns that strengthen us all in living with our wounds. Imagine that we explore together our shared experience of how best to live with these environmentally-related wounds -- what we have lost and what we have gained, what helps us and our families to be as healthy as we can be, and what patterns of disease we see in health affected families and communities that we need to pay more attention to scientifically.

XXI. Imagine that our own experience of the deepened wisdom and compassion toward life that sometimes comes from facing our own wounds finds its parallel as together we face the seemingly overwhelming task of reclaiming the earth from the wounds the human enterprise is inflicting on life on earth. Just as a cancer diagnosis or the birth of an autistic child can transform the awareness of what truly matters in a family, so perhaps our shared knowing of the environmentally related diseases and conditions we all face, and how deeply linked they are, can contribute to a great awakening similar to those that ended slavery, built democracy, established women's rights, forged the nineteenth century public health movement, ended nuclear testing, removed lead from gasoline and paint, and much more.

- Michael Lerner, March 21, 2002