Connecting Human and Environmental Health Solutions
As the ongoing pandemic has taught us, U.S. public health issues are pervasive. An airborne illness has fundamentally disrupted life as we know it. Identification of the Omicron variant proves COVID will be with us or the foreseeable future. Its impacts are affecting not only our health, but all sectors of our lives. We were warned of such a pandemic for years, yet we failed to act to limit its impact. However, once the coronavirus was upon us and wreaking havoc, we finally brought to bear the power of human ingenuity to confront it. Cause and effect have been real and demonstrable. We are adjusting and adapting. Today, Pharma giants are reassuring the world that should Omicron prove resistant to the existing vaccines, new ones can be developed within months. Governments are coordinating to mitigate the spread in the meantime.
Environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. Yet for too long we have talked about them as two entirely different disciplines and lived as if they were two separate worlds.
If we can come this far against a pandemic in less than two years, surely we can do the same to address the environmental degradation that also threatens the health and life of every person and every community on this planet. But we must apply the same human ingenuity in a systematic way, even as we adjust and adapt now, before it's too late to save ourselves from ourselves.
Environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. Yet for too long we have talked about them as two entirely different disciplines and lived as if they were two separate worlds. This is a shortsighted mistake. Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, we know that contaminated water causes hundreds of thousands of deaths and diseases, such as cholera and dysentery. But we aren't providing clean water service to a fifth of health care facilities in least developed countries.
Similarly, we know that 4.2 million deaths worldwide are due to health issues associated with particulate matter emissions. Yet only 7% of children worldwide breathe air that is considered not contaminated. All told,24% of estimated global dust are linked to the environment. That's 26 deaths every minute of every day, 365 days a year.
And of course, climate change has its profound impacts from increased flooding, drought, sea level rise, and extreme weather events that destroy lives on a daily basis.
Environmental factors and their impact on public health are also a huge social justice issue. Health impacts from mental factors disproportionately impact lower socioeconomic communities and poorer countries.
But the answer does not lie simply in treating the consequences of poor environmental health. We must be at the forefront of addressing and mitigating environmental issues that impact public health, from climate change to hazardous air contaminants to contaminated water sources and more. Preventive health care must incorporate preventive environmental care.
How can the business community, in general, and the healthcare community, in particular, help move the needle towards improvingenvironment and public health, or, as I refer to it, eco health?
The threats we face and their consequences are real and monumental, but there is hope. Humanity is built to solve the problems it faces.
There are ideas to consider.
As a threshold matter, those in the health care community must join with the environmental community and recognize their commonality of purpose: improved life through health and stability. Continuing to treat is nota long-term solution. We must attack the causes of so many health issues, and those are environmental impacts. For example, less than 10% of all cancers are due to genetics. Over 90% can be attributed to environment and lifestyle factors.
The health care sector must also model sustainable best practices in its own operations. It uses vast amounts of energy and water and generates massive amounts of waste.
We must also communicate in a way with the public that entices people not only to pay attention but to act. This is not as easy as it sounds. The low vaccination rates in many parts of the United States defied logic when the benefits of the vaccine were clear. Even as some people had family members die from the virus, they remained steadfast in their opposition to getting vaccinated themselves.
We live in an era when the public has a high level of distrust. Distrust in our government, distrust in the media, and distrust of anyone with a different political affiliation. We live in an anti-intellectual era, a sector of society distrusts science, especially if that science contradicts with their preconceived political or social views. And worse, welive in an era of rampant disinformation. Anyone with a Twitter handle or a blog can be an instant pundit and spew misinformation with little or no consequence. The average person therefore has a hard time deciphering fact from fiction.
How can we change behavior if no one knows for sure what the truth is? We can start there, realizing that the messenger is as often as important as the message. While some of us will listen and follow scientific or political figures standing at a podium and urging us to act, many will not. Therefore, we must seek out messengers that are trusted by our target audiences.
COVID vaccines are a great example. In recent months, we've seen professional athletes, country music stars and pop stars speak out about COVID and the need to get vaccinated. These messengers are landing the message. They're having success increasing vaccination rates. We must apply this same approach to issues like climate change and other forces devastating our environment and our public health.
Beyond understanding the connection and how to better communicate, what actions can companies be taking to advance change? The World Economic Forum and others offer some specific suggestions.
First and foremost, reduce your own carbon emissions. A study in 2019 found that only 23% of the Fortune Global 500 had committed to be carbon neutral by 2030. That was a 400% increase since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, and certainly more companies have made those commitments since then. But still, it's only a small fraction of major companies and does not include smaller businesses.
Second, companies can help reduce emissions upstream and downstream of business. Companies can leverage strengths as a buyer of goods to drive down emissions. Work with suppliers to reduce packaging, cluster deliveries and set procurement guidelines for those suppliers. Above all, set some specific and measurable goals, not vague general ones.
Today, more companies are rethinking their basic corporate vision and values, moving from a simple focus on maximizing profit to their shareholders to a broader vision of their role in the community, their impact and their purpose. Data have also increasingly shown that sustainable business operations equate to better long-term financial performance.
Lead from the front. Companies can inspire and motivateothers to work towards a more sustainable planet that addresses climate change,rather than resist change by disputing the benefits of addressing environmentaldegradation. Work with partners in the NGO community, government and otherbusinesses to foster collaboration and innovation to support addressing climateand other environmental factors. Encourage your employees, customers, suppliersto act in concert with you.
The threats we face and their consequences are real andmonumental, but there is hope. Humanity is built to solve the problems it faces, especially the ones of our own making.
As a communicator who spent decades developing sound environmental policy at the state and federal levels in the United States, I believe our hope rests in understanding the inextricable links between environmental and human health. We must convey a sense of urgency, bolstered by a can-do attitude. People will act if they believe their actions will result in positive hanges in their own lives.
As leaders, we can make the case that people’s families’ health will improve if climate and other environmental catastrophes are mitigated. We need to bring to bear the human ingenuity of our organizations and our institutions that represent the power to take action. And we need totake that action today.
We are the solution we seek. Let us work together to shareideas. And then let's get to work.