Following The Path of Service - to Nature

By Traci Hukill, Common Ground, Printed on January 27, 2006

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- On December 10, 1988, Michael Green took his camera and slipped out of the Tibetan hotel that he and other tourists had been warned not to leave. It was International Human Rights Day, and Tibetan separatists in Lhasa were gathering in the city square to demonstrate for independence from China. Chinese soldiers, trucked in en masse the day before, ringed the square. Chinese police scanned the crowd from balconies and second-floor windows. Green began surreptitiously photographing the scene.

"I had this very naive idea they wouldn't be hurt," Green says. "And then, a group of nuns opens the Tibetan flag. They're standing maybe 40 feet away from me, in a triangle with the soldiers. And the soldiers shot them. Right in front of me. And then they tear-gassed the square."

Green escaped unharmed but not unaffected. He was 26 at the time, a student of dharma who had arrived in Tibet two months earlier to experience the culture he had read about for years. What he got instead was a lesson in earthly suffering and injustice. He never saw his photographs printed -- they were lost when he tried to smuggle the film out of China -- but what he had witnessed stayed with him. Within months, he was in Calcutta at Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes, carrying terminally ill patients back and forth to the restroom. And doing lots of thinking.

"I realized two things," he says. "One, I could do anything; and two, I became immensely grateful for the affluence in this country."

He also realized the value of service: "The sisters at the Missionaries of Charity [Mother Teresa's order] dedicated their lives to service of the poor. And I had this very proud idea: 'Oh, I'm the guy who documented the struggle of the Tibetans.' And I saw that I didn't really do anything. And I still haven't."

The Path of Service

The service ethic began to influence Green's path. After returning to the United States, he got master's degrees in public policy and natural resources from the University of Michigan, building on his UC Berkeley bachelor's degree in conservation. He spent his last school year in Dharamsala in northern India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, trying to solve the impoverished refugee community's overwhelming garbage problem -- "not sexy work."

After graduation came an idealistically driven but disappointing three years with the federal government in Washington doing environmental protection work. That led to Green's loading up his Honda Accord and lighting out for his old stomping grounds: the San Francisco Bay Area.

He had a plan. He wanted to start an organization that would work to make the environment safer for everyone, especially poor people, who tend to live in the most polluted areas. As he drove, he mulled some advice he had gotten while on a summer internship in The Hague. It came from Michael van Walt, longtime legal adviser to the Dalai Lama.

"Basically the message was: Just do it," Green says. "Don't worry about the money. Just do it and the money will show up."

That was 1996, the year the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) was born on the strength of a credit card and the sheer willpower of a guy from Cleveland with a spiritual bent.

Today CEH is a small but audacious nonprofit with an established record of David v. Goliath victories. In 1999, it sued Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and other makers of medicated baby powder over lead-contaminated zinc in their products. By 2003, the companies had agreed to reformulate their powders. In 2000, CEH sued the makers of Children's Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol and other anti-diarrheals over lead exposure; the companies agreed to either reduce lead levels or place warning labels on their products. In 2001, CEH sued 30 manufacturers of playground equipment made with arsenic-treated wood. Two years later, the entire industry had stopped distributing arsenic-contaminated structures.

Lunchboxes and Lead Apples

Perhaps the most impressive victory came in July 2004, weeks after CEH, along with California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, filed suit against a slew of major retailers -- among them Macy's, Target and Claire's -- for selling lead-contaminated jewelry. Shortly thereafter, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered the recall of 150 million pieces of lead-tainted children's jewelry sold in vending machines. It was the largest product recall in the commission's history.

Since then, CEH has sent warnings to makers of lead-contaminated Mexican candy, filed suit against the Walt Disney Co. over lead-contaminated children's jewelry and sued the makers of soft vinyl lunchboxes over their high lead content.

Not bad for an organization with eight full-time employees. Nine years on, a fit and energetic Green presides over a youthful staff that still looks flushed with the discovery of its political success. The group makes all decisions -- including the recent hire of an associate director -- by consensus. It's a management model Green strove to attain for years but only recently figured out. "It's really simple," he says. "All it means is that you're honest about how you feel and you're nice to everybody."

Litigation is just one part of CEH's work. The group works on a variety of issues: GMOs, PCBs in farmed salmon, medical waste incineration. One major project is the Computer Take Back Campaign (CTBC), in which CEH, along with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, encourages computer manufacturers to offer recycling of their old computers -- and to do it without exposing workers to toxic chemicals (much computer recycling is done by prison labor or sent overseas).

CTBC has had some success with Dell and Hewlett-Packard, though Apple has been slow to come around. CEH has also joined forces with Health Care Without Harm to convince major players in the medical industry to purchase only electronics that are responsibly recycled.

Heavy Metal Meets the Law

These "pollution prevention" projects, as they're known in the cramped two-story Oakland house that serves as CEH world headquarters, are important. The lawsuits, though, are discrete projects with high impact and relatively quick turnaround time. They represent shortcuts to dramatic change, even if the change is piecemeal in the overall scheme of things.

"Prop 65 is a really powerful tool," says Green, referring to the indispensable law under which CEH filed the suits. "It allows us to respond to urgent situations."

Passed by California voters in 1986, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxics Enforcement Act requires the governor's office to maintain a list of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. It is prohibited to expose anyone in California to any of those chemicals without warning. In practice, this means manufacturers must label their products as hazardous if they contain any of the listed substances -- an unappealing option -- or better yet, reformulate their products.

Green says CEH takes care in selecting its targets for litigation. For one thing, lead is easily detected with store-bought kits, which explains the high number of lead-related lawsuits filed by CEH. But like all small organizations seeking to make the most impact with limited resources, the group also must employ strategic thinking.

"Who's affected? Is it children? Is it communities that suffer a disproportionate amount of contaminants?" Green asks. "Kids, because their metabolism is totally different, are especially vulnerable.

"And what leverage do we have with the relevant corporations? With computers, we can convince our friends in the health care sector to make those deals. Or do we have leverage because [the corporations are] breaking the law? There are two ways to look at [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs: Get him to work with us, or kick him in the ass.

"And visibility. Will it have impact on others? Taking on Disney will change Claire's, but taking on Claire's won't change Disney."

In some ways, lawsuits like these are the heavy lifting of the environmental health movement -- expensive, painstaking and patience-trying.

"It's really hard work. It's chemical-by-chemical, product-by-product work," says Joe Guth, a senior policy analyst at CEH. "One thing that distinguishes CEH is they take on these Prop 65 cases. Most organizations don't really bring them as a plaintiff. Is that what's going to change chemical policy? I don't know. It's one niche, one tool?"

Another niche is the "big-picture" work that Guth does. Two years ago, Guth quit his job as vice-president at the medical biotech firm Chiron to come to CEH. It was a return to environmental work for Guth, who had been at the National Resources Defense Council for five years. He now serves on an advisory committee for the Environmental Protection Agency. He's also working on the Big One (not his words): a comprehensive new chemical-safety policy that could be introduced at the national level or perhaps in a progressive state like California.

One model is "an ambitious, gigantic regulatory regime" making its arduous way through the European Union approval system. Guth has made up a version that would apply in the U.S. and is sending it around to other big thinkers as a starting point.

That's years out. The European statute, which is far ahead of a U.S. version, won't kick in for another 15 years or so -- if it passes. Meanwhile, Green and Co. will continue the work they've been doing, taking on toxics, chemical-by-chemical and industry-by-industry.

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif. This piece originally appeared in Common Ground.