Gary Cohen, 59, has spent his entire career trying to reduce pollution. His Virginia-based not-for-profit, Health Care Without Harm, has been at the forefront of the push to eliminate the use of mercury in medical instruments worldwide and to dramatically reduce the number of medical waste incinerators in America, a leading source of pollution linked to birth defects and cancer.
Cohen’s work was recognized this year by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Cohen a “genius grant” of $625,000 paid over the next five years. Cohen intends to use the money to help the health care industry reduce its carbon footprint and to slow climate change.
Cohen got his start as a critic of the chemical industry following the Bhopal disaster, in India in 1984, when gas leaked from a U.S.-owned pesticide plant, killing 4,000 people and poisoning tens of thousands more. He spent ten years as an environmental campaigner and advocate before co-founding Health Care Without Harm in 1996. The idea behind the group was simple: Doctors are supposed to do no harm — yet the medical industry is one of the world’s major polluters. The group works with health care systems, governments, unions and other organizations to reduce pollution and to promote a sustainable health care industry.
He told the Forward: “I very much see my work as tikkun olam, healing the world, and I try to express it as, ‘What does it mean to be a good Jew on a planet in crisis?’”