Welcome - A Report

According to the WHO Regional Office for Europe, “Environmental health comprises those aspects of human health and disease that are determined by factors in the environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing and controlling factors in the environment that can potentially affect health. It includes both the direct pathological effects of chemicals, radiation and some biological agents, and the effects (often indirect) on health and wellbeing of the broad physical, psychological, social and aesthetic environment.”

In this context, as in many others, certain questions cannot be solved on the basis of science alone, important as it may be. These are ethical questions, questions of right and wrong, questions of what we should do and what we should not do. For instance, one may think of the following: Which kind of environmental health problems should at all be investigated? Which facts are reason enough to spend money on research? Which groups of stakeholders should be listened to? How should the results of such research be communicated to the people at risk from environmental factors? How can different kinds of environmental risks be compared? What about justice if risks and burdens are not equitably distributed? What costs are justified to reduce risks, and who should pay? Which level of certainty do we need before we take protective measured against environmental health risks?

One can easily imagine that such questions would, for instance, come up in the context of radiation protection. It is therefore no wonder that a symposium on ethics of environmental health would be organized as a satellite meeting of the International Congress of Radiation Research. Such a congress took place in Warsaw, Poland, at the beginning of September 2011, and its organizers suggested to Friedo Zölzer of the Faculty of Health and Social Studies, Southbohemian University in Budweis/Czech Republic to organize a satellite meeting on ethics in Prague. It was decided to broaden the scope of the meeting from radiation ethics in particlar to ethics of environmental health in general, and renowned experts in that area were invited to become members of the organizing committee as well as key note speakers, among them Deborah Oughton (Norway), Sven Ove Hansson (Sweden), Mark Coeckelbergh (Netherlands), Steven Gilbert (USA), Susanne Bauer (Germany) and Colin Soskolne (Canada).

Thus, radiation specialists and colleagues from neighbouring fields gathered at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel at Flora, Prague, for three days from 24 to 27 August, 2011. They came from about 15 different countries, and reported on questions as diverse as „Philosophical Approaches to Environmental Health Ethics“, „Nuclear Power Production and Waste Management“, „The Fukushima Disaster“, „Health Problems from Toxic Substances in the Amazon Rain Forest“, „Reporting Results from Biomonitoring in Canada“, „Conflict Resolution in Emergency Medical Care“, „Ethics in Environmental Health Education“ and “A Cross-Cultural Approach to Ethics of Environmental Health”.

All participants stayed at the same hotel, which promoted better communication among them. The program also included less scientific items, such as a presentation about “The right to being surrounded by beauty” given by the former president of the Czech Chamber of Architects (a Bahá'í), a guided tour through Prague’s old town, and a dinner cruise on the Vltava river. There was general agreement that „Ethics of Environmental Health“ is a topic which requires more attention, that it was very useful to look at this topic from different perspectives and for this purpose to bring together people from different backgrounds, that the discussions were extremely stimulating for further research, and that this kind of meetings should be held regularly every two to three years.