If you travel to the south end of the city of Edinburgh and take a bus ride farther south to an unmarked and inconspicuous little trail into the trees, you’ll find a peaceful, but passionate, protest in tree houses around a small campfire.
This is the Bilston Glen Protest Site, where for the past six years, protesters from all over Scotland, the UK and many other parts of the world are hoping to save a beautiful stand of trees from being plowed for a three mile stretch of road.
I spent a couple of nights here, attracted by my curiosity of people trying to protect the environment this way.
My first thoughts were that six years of people living in The Glen would have trampled the underbrush, scared away all the animals and most likely these Euro-hippies would be smoking pot and playing host to any number of unscrupulous characters.
What I found during my time was quite surprising and provided an interesting backdrop for thoughts amid the news I read back in town.
A number of news outlets reported a short blurb on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to impose much more stringent regulations in the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. This is actually quite wonderful news for the public’s health — which would be expected from the agency tasked as the guardian of the nation’s Clean Air Act.
None of these articles, however, mentioned how close we were to having lead completely removed from the NAAQS.
Looking back in time a short bit we can take a brief glimpse into the history or the work that has brought us to have policies to support these new standards.
In 1854, John Snow had become a major figure in public health by tracking the source of a massive cholera outbreak to a water source servicing the now famous Broad Street pump. His work became what many public health officials say are now the basic tools of modern day epidemiology.
Just under 100 years later in 1952, London was the site of one of the modern world’s most notable environmental health misfortunes. An immense smog cloud that inspired London’s nickname, the Big Smoke, descended upon the city eventually causing more than approximately 4,000 deaths by some estimates. The adverse health effects of the smog cloud were linked to respiratory tract infections and hypoxia and an estimated 4,000 deaths.
Move forward to the late 1970s when the U.S. began phasing out leaded gasoline.
In the years since the completion of lead being taken out of gasoline ,numerous reports summarized in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Weekly Mortality and Morbidity Reports,” the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey as well as documentation from around the world cited by the World Health Organization hail the ban of leaded gasoline as a success in decreasing in blood lead levels and thereby improving the health of populations through protecting the quality of air we breathe.
With this kind of information, it is truly hard to believe that in early 2007 proponents of the removal of lead led from the EPA’s NAAQ list were able to gain the endorsement of President.
In the evening after leaving residence in the trees, I took an overnight bus to London — Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and London Bridge were on the agenda. But, of more interest to me was tracking down John Snow’s Broad Street pump.
Standing there in the presence of a near shrine in the history of public health, I thought of my new friends in Bilston Glen — of their logic of the pros and cons of living partially disrupting the ecosystem in order to save it.
“We can’t just do nothing — it will be completely destroyed if we leave.”
Along the same lines, what if someone had replaced the pump handle at Broad Street? And what if the EPA had allowed the removal of lead from the NAAQS? Wouldn’t that be like putting John Snow’s pump handle back on?
Phoenix Mourning-Star is an environmental health graduate student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.