Michael Green Pursues a Cleaner, Greener Future
Lila Hanft, Cleveland Jewish News
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Shaker native's agency takes on toxins that endanger
It's a parent's nightmare: dangerous levels of lead lurking in Spiderman
lunchboxes, Disney "Princess" jewelry, and spicy candy made by
subsidiaries of Hershey and Mars.
It was all there on the shelves of Target, WalMart, and
many other retailer, and would be there still if it weren't for Michael Green,
executive director and founder of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH).
Green, the son of former Shaker
Heights residents Shirley and Scotch Green, attended Shaker Heights High School
and the University
before embarking on a truly anomalous career path. Gifted with a creative
approach to obstacles, Green traveled in India,
Tibet, and China. He
volunteered for Mother Teresa in Calcutta and
worked on the garbage problem plaguing the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala, India.
After graduate school at the University
of Michigan, Green took a promising
job in the US Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C.
And found himself a cog in a very big machine.
"Have you ever been in the DOE building in Washington?" he asks during a telephone interview with
the CJN from his office in Oakland.
"The building is so massive – three blocks long – that it's impossible to
be (anything but) a cog."
He came to this realization as he was being given an award
by the Secretary of the DOE in a large assembly. "The award was for
organizing an all-day meeting between the secretary and the people who live
around the worst nuclear waste site." Green wondered, "Is this the
pinnacle of what I can achieve? I think I can do more."
Doing something more
In 1996, he returned to the Bay Area, where he founded CEH
and put his creativity into developing strategic ways to stop toxic exposures
and protect public health.
Green says the small structure of the CEH suits his
"entrepreneurial" nature. "Now I work with a dozen really motivated
people," instead of a huge bureaucracy, he explains. "There aren't any
memos, there isn't a long chain of command. If someone at CEH has a really good
idea, we just do it."
has effective consumer-protection laws, it's a good place for CEH. The
California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 has a
citizens' suit provision under which CEH brings public interest lawsuits
against corporations that expose people to toxic chemicals without their
Since WWII, "we have created tens of thousands of
chemicals that didn't exist before," says Green. "And very few of these
chemicals have been regulated."
Nor have we taken any protective measures, says Green.
"Chemicals are assumed safe until proven otherwise." The result is
"an unplanned science experiment. We don't know which of these things are
going to have bad consequences."
One of the CEH's most pressing concerns is children's
exposure to lead and arsenic. Children's developing bodies and brains are
sensitive to even small amounts of lead, which can lead to learning
disabilities, brain damage, neuropsychological deficits, attention deficit
disorder and hyperactive behavior.
Like lead, so-called "fat-loving" dioxins like PCP
also pose a particular risk for children. These dioxins attach to fat and stay
in the body as long as the fat does. They're also released into breast milk – a
very scary thought – which may be why women who breastfeed have lower rates of
breast cancer. ("At this point, I always stop to say that even so,
breastfeeding is still better for children than formula," says Green.)
Protecting the most vulnerable
With so many unregulated toxins in the environment, how
does the CEH pick its causes?
"We have several criteria," explains Green. "Who
is being affected? If it's a community, is it one that is disproportionately
impacted (by pollution, by poverty) already? Is it a vulnerable population,
They also take in account how serious the health hazard
Finally, Green says, "we ask ourselves ‘How much
leverage do we have? Is it a company or industry where we feel we can make a
difference?'" CEH's strategic impact is enhanced when it has an ally or a
collaborative relationship in place within the industry.
Isn't government supposed to protect us?
Although they're not always recognized outside the world
of environmentalists, nonprofit, non-governmental agencies like CEH perform a
very important function, spanning the breach between government regulations and
"Government is about making and enforcing laws,"
Green explains. "And it is difficult to get laws passed that will cost
industry money, even if in the long term it saves society money."
Sometimes laws can't be enforced "because the
government agency lacks the resources or because the laws aren't comprehensive
or focused enough," Green acknowledges.
Two of CEH's recent successes – banning lead in lunchboxes
and children's jewelry – are a good example of this. "There is a law about
how much lead a child can be exposed to, but there's no law about how much lead
can be in children's jewelry," Green says. Without specific legislation,
"government didn't have the ability to investigate" that situation.
A ‘captured agency'
When the CEH had gathered solid scientific evidence that
there was lead in the lining of soft vinyl lunchboxes, they went to the US
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is charged with protecting the
public from unreasonable risks from consumer products.
But the CPSC said that they'd already tested the lunch
boxes, and while they did contain lead, there was not enough lead to pose a
problem. Suspicious of their scientific methods, the CEH asked for their data
and was refused. Requests from reporters were also turned down by CPSC.
"When they finally released the information (their
science) wasn't that good," recalls Green. Regardless, "the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), based on the CPSC data, said, ‘We don't think anyone
should be selling these lunchboxes to children.'" In an unusual move, the FDA
notified makers of soft vinyl lunchboxes that they should stop marketing their
products because any lead on the surface of a lunchbox lining can be expected
to contaminate food and would therefore be a prohibited food additive.
Green's organization once had a good relationship with the
CPSC. But "since Bush was elected, they have been very loath to take
action to protect consumers from health hazards," he laments. "In my
profession, they're what we call ‘a captured agency', (answering to) the very
parties that they are responsible for supervising."
Change from within
The CEH is best known for its public interest lawsuits
(see sidebar), but Green prefers collaboration to confrontation. "Lawsuits
get media attention," he confirms. "And (your opponents) have to talk to
But Green prefers to work collaboratively with companies
in a given industry. He cites, for example, the competition among "green
architects" to see "who can be the greenest and the cleanest." The CEH can
serve as a resource to architects trying to "crack the market" with
buildings that use "the fewest toxic materials."
"I like working with a sector to help them to change the
way they do business," he concludes. The more innovative the industry, the more
successful this strategy is. "The computer industry is unique in that the
innovators win (as opposed to, say, the clever marketers). It's a sector that
can make quick change."
That bodes well for finding a solution to disposing of
"the lead, cadmium, and all sorts of toxic chemicals no one knows what to
"What if the computer manufacturer and the consumer
had a mutual interest in making it easy to dispose of the computers once
they're outdated? That would give the computer industry incentive to design
computers with recycling in mind. The successful company would have the
competitive advantage of saying, "We're the ones making the greenest,