Physicians for Human Rights holds fifth annual health conference on planetary health

by Grayce Gibbs | 1/14/19 2:30am

The seventh annual Geisel Physicians for Human Rights conference focused on something not always talked about in conjunction with human health: planetary health.

The conference, took place in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center on Friday, Jan. 11 and Saturday, Jan. 12. The events were organized by second-year Geisel medical students Prajesh Gongal Med ’21 and Steven Tau Med ’25, who is also a doctorate candidate. Hosted in partnership with the Nathan Smith Society, the undergraduate organization for students interested in the health professions, the conference provided attendees with the opportunity to attend a documentary screening, a keynote presentation, group lectures and smaller workshops. There were 275 registrants including undergraduate students, graduates, community members, faculty and staff.

Past conference topics have included women’s rights; incarceration, reparative health and restorative justice; and finding a home and health for refugees. Gongal said they hoped to explore new issues this year.

“We wanted to branch out and explore topics that had not been explored or [that] people don’t really view as a human rights issue,” Gongal said. “We, as med students, are not aware of how planetary health affects human health. It was as much an exploration for all of the attendees as it was for us.”

Gongal said he hoped attendees learned how the changing environment affects their own health, others’ health and animal health, and how these issues relate to global human rights issues, especially in poorer areas of the world.

Though the conference did examine planetary health in poorer locations, an emphasis was also placed on the local area, with workshops such as geography professor Jonathan Winter’s “Implications of Climate Change for the Northeastern United States.”

Tau said that a lot of the topics discussed in the conference focused on both the local and global levels.

“A lot of our speakers do work in this local, Upper Valley area in New Hampshire and Vermont,” he said. “Environmental change happens everywhere, including here. It was something we wanted to really bring back home.”

Keynote speaker and Planetary Health Alliance director Samuel Myers shared introductory remarks on Friday night before the screening of Chris Jordan’s documentary “Albatross.” Relying mainly on visuals and music, the film shows the effects of plastic on albatrosses, which are large seabirds found in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific.

“‘Albatross’ is one of the most exceptional films I’ve ever seen,” Myers said in his introduction. “We have renounced almost unwittingly our emotional, spiritual [and] moral relationship to the natural world … Chris Jordan uses ecological grief to bring us back to our relationship.”

Geisel School of Medicine professor Jonathon Ross attended the documentary screening and conference lectures. He described the film as “stunning” and “emotionally moving.”

The conference re-convened on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m. for Myers’ keynote presentation, “Planetary Health: Perils and Possibilities for Human Civilization.”

In addition to four main lectures, the conference split off twice into breakout sessions. Optional workshops included “Mercury and Arsenic in Our Food” and “Effect of Natural Disasters and Global Response in Haiti.”

Additionally, academic director of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society Amanda Graham and Tuck School of Business clinical professor of business administration Anant Sundaram hosted an event on “Energy, Health, and Policy.” They discussed about the health impacts of different energy sources, as well as the implications of energy policy — for example, how a carbon tax would affect the health of those living in poverty with limited electricity.

“I would love to see more presence of the public health professional in our environmental decision-making.” Graham said. “We’ve passed the point where our welfare is separate from the planets. I would love to see the coming generation of medical professionals actively engaged in that conversation.”

Pedro Castro ’21 said that he attended the conference in order to learn more about an issue that is often overlooked when considering public and global health.

“I realized how much of an impact energy poverty can have on one’s health,” Castro said. “If you can’t afford electricity for lighting or cooking, you’re forced to use kerosene or wood fires to cook food, which has shown to have significant impacts on lung health, for example … I think one of the worst mistakes we can make is thinking that the problems afflicting the world right now have no solution. That’s just a failure of imagination.”

Geisel professor of community and family medicine Sarah Johansen, who also served in an advisory role to Gongal and Tau for conference planning, said that the conference was fantastic.

“The overwhelming sentiment was that there was a stimulating, informative and moving group of speakers, and diverse disciplines and perspectives represented,” she added.

Gongal and Tau began planning the conference over seven months ago, in May 2018. As co-organizers, they found speakers, recruited other students to work with them and chose the conference topic.

“We wanted a topic that we could explore ourselves as well as giving an educational experience to everyone who attends,” Tau said.

What began as a one-day symposium with a few speakers has evolved into a two-day conference with over 15 speakers coming from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“We hope people got as much information as they could out of this and hopefully incorporate something that they learned into their daily lives so we can make the whole world a better place,” Gongal said.

Correction Appended (Jan. 16, 2019): This article was updated for accuracy to clarify the Nathan Smith Society co-organized the conference with the Geisel chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.