September 25, 2013

By Dr. Sarah Janssen, SF Bay Area PSR Board of Directors

I have been involved with PSR for nearly 2 decades, first in the student chapter at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign which started with a group of friends from medical school who were interested in social justice issues and a faculty mentor, Dr. Anne Robin, who helped us get off the ground. Two years later we partnered with a community group and the newly formed Health Care Without Harm to shut down two medical waste incinerators at our local community hospitals, the same hospitals where we were doing our training. Several of the students in our chapter became involved with National PSR – we went to the annual meetings, had a student representative on the national board, and took part in a wide range of activities. I received PSR’s Broad Street Pump award in 1998. PSR was my first introduction to the field of environmental health and, since then, it has become my passion and area of clinical expertise. I joined SF Bay Area PSR when I moved to San Francisco for my internship and residency at UCSF, and have been a part of the SF Bay Area PSR Board of Directors since 2007.

Since I joined the PSR Board, I have developed a real sense of pride and admiration for the work of the organization. I’ve been really impressed by how much our small but mighty staff can do. They have been very successful and have developed a strong reputation in the community as the voice of health professionals.

Since residency training, my work has focused on chemicals found in consumer products, especially those linked to hormone disruption, such as phthalates, BPA and flame retardants. I worked for seven years as a scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and often worked with the support of SF Bay Area PSR to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals through state legislation or regulatory initiatives. Though we were the 10th state to do so, California did ban BPA in baby bottles! We were the first state, followed by the federal government, to ban the use of the plastic softening chemicals, phthalates, from toys intended for kids under the age of 3. This fall, I will be in a HBO documentary film about the unnecessary and unhealthy use of flame retardant chemicals in our furniture called “Toxic Hot Seat”.  It will be premiering at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October. You can learn more at toxichotseatmovie.com

Currently I am working as a staff physician for Kaiser Permanente in the Occupational Medicine department where I care for injured workers. I get to see first-hand how Kaiser implements the practices supported by SF Bay Area PSR to make hospitals healthier places. I feel that occupational and environmental medicine is a good place to be because, of all the areas of clinical medicine, it’s one that emphasizes public health and prevention.

I feel strongly that there is a need for physicians to speak out to policy makers on topics they feel passionate about, whether it is anti-nuclear, environmental health, gun control issues or something else you care about.  We are a trusted and respected voice, and our words carry a lot of weight.

San Francisco PSR is a great resource if you are a health professional who is interested in being more involved but you aren’t sure how to get started. It doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. SF Bay Area PSR can provide a lot of resources, including how to approach a meeting with a legislator, write a letter to the editor, raise awareness about the issues PSR is working on, and frame the issues in a way that catches the attention of the public and policymakers. The health professionals who attended trainings hosted by SF Bay Area PSR have come with Board members on regular visits with legislators. We welcome other members of PSR to come to those meetings as well: it’s fun and useful. Email action@sfbaypsr.org to get involved.