By Aaron Munzer
Special to The Journal

ITHACA — At a conference held Saturday in Ithaca College’s Hill Center, educators, health care practitioners, government officials and students discussed how to solve public health issues by encouraging sustainability in both the workplace and everyday life.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Jonathan Patz, a health researcher and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke to the approximately 150 conference attendees about global climate change and its effect on the world’s health.

Patz noted that a rise in global temperatures and more extreme weather could result in more insect and water-borne diseases, worsening air pollution, sewage overflows, and lethal heat waves and droughts.

“Our health really depends on adequate food and water,” he said. “And that’s why climate change is a problem.”

But Patz also emphasized how climate change could also be an opportunity for people to change their habits and fight obesity — one of the developed world’s biggest health problems — by biking to work, exercising more and leading healthier lives.

“We have built unhealthy cities, where even if you wanted to walk or ride your bike to work, you can’t,” he said. “It’s a system-wide problem.”

Gay Nicholson, the program coordinator for Sustainable Tompkins, said she initiated the conference to create greater regional collaboration between the normally separate sectors of health care, government and education.

“We all have shared concerns that I think collaboration can help address,” Nicholson said. “How are we going to coordinate to help the people of Upstate New York live healthier lives and transition to a healthier society?”

Later, over a vegetarian lunch of salad, pasta and grilled vegetable wraps, attendees discussed eliminating toxic chemicals from households, encouraging fitness in employees and sustainable development in hospitals.

Dr. Rob Mackenzie, the president of Cayuga Medical Center, told others at his table about the hospital’s recent renovation to make its intensive care and cardiac unit more energy-efficient. But he was there to learn more about the operational side.

“The advantage to this conference is that everyone has a level of skill and knowledge that they bring to it, and everyone has something to learn,” he said.

Mackenzie said CMC has already turned some of the ideas at the conference into reality by offering incentives to employees who attend fitness sessions or bike to work.

“It’s been neat to see how many people have been inspired to be more active,” he said.

Other speakers at the event included Sandra Steingraber, an author and a distinguished visiting scholar at IC, who talked about eliminating toxins in local communities, and Steve Siconolfi, dean of Ithaca College’s school of health sciences and human performance, who spoke about the role of health educators in sustainability. Paul Levesque, an associate with HOLT Architects, spoke about sustainable design.

Students were also part of the discussion — Meredith Titterington, a senior studying community health education at IC, moderated a talk on public policy and the food supply.

“It’s nice to have the older perspective and the younger perspective,” she said. “It was a really good conversation.”