An Unhealthy Secrecy

CAMPUS ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS love to raise students' awareness about global ecological issues. Ecolympics raises awareness of the national need to conserve energy. Recycling across campus raises awareness of the chronic depletion of the world's renewable resources. And charting the investment practices of the University raises awareness of how Harvard profits from companies that pollute.

Rarely, however, do activists focus their energy on a basic issue of relevance to students' everyday lives--the environmental risks of living at Harvard. Such risks may include contamination of the water, poorly ventilated exhaust in buildings, spoiled food and asbestos in classrooms. Why the silence? It's not because such risks don't exist.

It's because the activists don't know about them.

HARVARD GUARDS health information as obsessively as it did the details of the recent presidential search. Few have even heard of the Environmental Health and Safety Office, the bureaucratic arm that charts the pollution on campus.

Not to mention the Environmental Health and Safety Committee, the secret group that meets regularly to formulate University policy on environmental risks. Not only is this group off-limits to students, but currently no deans directly responsible for students are party to its proceedings.


The secrecy is not accidental, nor is it just a gut reflex of the administration. It's good legal protection for Harvard. By withholding information about the risks of living on campus, the University can prevent lawsuits from students, staff and faculty. If students do develop health conditions 10 years down the road, they won't even think of blaming Harvard.

Those who find this reasoning farfetched should consider the following hypothetical example:

Suppose that Harvard's environmental brass learn that Cambridge's drinking water has been contaminated with levels of carcinogens exceeding the maximum limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Do they tell students, staff and faculty about the risks? Do they at least tell members of the community to switch to bottled water until independent testing is finished and the water is declared safe?

Or do they keep quiet?

The correct answer is that this isn't a hypothetical scenario. Last spring, Harvard administrators did find out that the tap water had been contaminated with high levels of carcinogenic trihalomethanes for 16 months. But rather than inform the community immediately, officials waited for four weeks to make any official announcement. (They claimed that the information was too "alarming" to tell students immediately.)

During that month, those directly responsible for students--Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 and the house masters--never found out about the risks. It took a Crimson editorial to pressure the University into immediately releasing the results of independent tests that showed that the concentration of trihalomethanes had returned to normal.

Unfortunately, the uproar over this incident did virtually nothing to alter the institutional tendency to cover up health risks. One year later, the Environmental Health and Safety Committee is still off-limits to students. The only change is that Jewett says he has been "assured that if there are any problems we'll be notified." He believes that last year's water incident happened because the "environmental people just hadn't considered--as much as they might have--the necessity to inform the community."

With students' health in the balance, Jewett must have a lot of faith in a system that has failed before.

UNLIKE the global environmental crises that consume so much of activists' attention, campus environmental secrecy has a simple solution: Put a student on the Environmental Health and Safety Committee. This student would attend every meeting, ask the right questions and inform the campus press when necessary. I have no doubt that many environmental activists on campus could serve this role well.

Is this just a dream? Will Harvard ever allow a student on a such a committee? Jewett says he would "have no problem" with student participation in the committee's activities. Director of University Health Services David S. Rosenthal, who serves on the Environmental Health and Safety Committee, said he has "no objections" except one--that "sometimes issues need to be kept very confidential."

Surely, a student could be counted on to keep secrets when absolutely necessary. But the point is that sometimes these secrets need to be let out. As Jewett says, "secrecy is not a reason" to deny students a place on the Environmental Health and Safety Committee. All it will take is for students to demand a spot.

Informing the community about environmental risks on campus will improve the health of students, staff and faculty. But it will even do more. By helping students understand the personal implications of environmental risks and the importance of full disclosure of contaminants, activists will raise their awareness into the stratosphere.