Dr. Lani Graham received the Bettie Kettell Award from the Environmental Health Strategy Center at a special ceremony this month. Also pictured is Dr. Daniel Oppenheim. Contributed / Dave Dostie

PORTLAND — As an environmental health activist, Dr. Lani Graham believes that climate change is the leading health crisis facing humans today.

But in recent years she’s mostly focused on the fight to remove toxins from drinking water, food products and food packaging, as well as playing a key role in addressing the issue of lead poisoning in children.

Recently, Graham, who graduated from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in 1972 and now lives in Freeport, received the Bettie Kettell Outstanding Health Professional award from the Environmental Health Strategy Center, which is headquartered in Portland.

The award is given out annually to a nurse, physician or other health professional “whose outstanding leadership, compassion, intelligence and insight (make them) a fierce advocate for environmental health in Maine and nationally,” a center press release said.

The center held its award ceremony Oct. 17 at the Clarion Hotel where it gave out several other honors, including a Grass Roots Leader award to Arundel-based dairy farmer Fred Stone.

Graham was a long-time family physician and is now retired. While she enjoyed interacting with patients one-on-one, it’s in the area of public health that she can make the most difference, Graham believes. She said her overall goal as a doctor is to help people “reach their highest and best level of health.”

Nika Beauchamp, communications director at the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said the annual awards ceremony is important because it helps to highlight “the impressive victories for a healthier, toxic-free future that have been won.”

She said the center chose Graham for the Bettie Kettell Award because she’s “devoted her career to fighting not only for the health of her patients, but also for the health of the wider human community here in Maine and across the nation.”

Specifically, Beauchamp said that Graham was “instrumental in passing … precedent-setting environmental public health legislation,” including the recent Safe Food Packaging Act and 2008’s Kid Safe Products Act, which has now become a model for other states.

Graham called the Environmental Health Strategy Center “the premiere organization for environmental health in Maine … and of course, I am deeply touched to be receiving this award.”

Graham is a member of Gov. Janet Mills’ new PFAS Task Force, which was formed to advise the governor on how best to tackle the problem of toxic PFAS contamination in food, soil and water.

She is a former director of the Maine Bureau of Health where she issued a first-in-the-nation warning regarding mercury contamination in freshwater fish, and she’s also the former chairwoman of Citizens for a Healthy Portland, which led the effort to ban smoking in restaurants.

In addition, nearly two decades ago Graham was working with the Maine chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and helped publish a report, entitled “Death by Degrees,” which warned about the dangers of climate change in Maine.

She has also created and helped to implement statewide plans to address the HIV epidemic, assure funding for childhood immunizations and assure breast and cervical cancer screening for all Maine women.

Graham was quick to say this week that she couldn’t have accomplished so much without the help of dedicated colleagues and state leaders. She first became inspired to work in the area of public health through nationwide efforts to implement clean water regulations, as well as other initiatives.

“In my view, environmental health includes everything from safe spaces to walk and play, to chemicals in the environment, to climate change,” Graham said this week.

The problem, she said, is that without a commitment to fund the necessary research, “the impacts of the environment on health are poorly understood.” For her, “climate change is perhaps the leading health crisis today … and unfortunately, trends seem to show that Maine may be more deeply affected than perhaps some others.”

“The environment impacts our health every single day in dozens of ways,” Graham added. “It’s making an impact on our health through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat (and) the sun on our bodies.”

What gives her hope, though, is that “individuals can definitely make a difference. In fact, progress toward a healthier environment depends on individual participation,” she said.

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