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Protecting the Environment and Protecting Health: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Posted on March 27, 2017

Probably the most impactful single thing that we as a society can do to protect our health is to ensure a clean and healthy environment. This is likely far more important in terms of both lives saved and illness prevented than ensuring access to health care, than delivering drugs, than targeting treatments based on genetic factors, or even than curing cancer.

This past month our school hosted two important events related to the impact of the environment on health: a Population Health Spotlight lecture by Jonathan Patz, renowned international leader on the links between climate change and health, and a Drexel-wide interdisciplinary panel on how environmental protection can be used to protect the health of the public.

A fundamental issue is that any environmental regulation can and should be based on rigorous science. The setting of air quality standards by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as required by the Clean Air Act, is a beautiful example of the best use of science for policy-making.

A solid and interdisciplinary body of research comprising laboratory animal experiments, human exposure studies, and sophisticated epidemiologic studies have identified the effects of a number of air pollution exposures on health. In pursuance of the Clean Air Act, EPA reviews the environmental standards for each of five criteria pollutants listed in the Act every five years. The process includes extensive scientific and public input.

Staff assess the evidence for health effects based on a range of different types of scientific studies, they obtain expert advice and hear public comment from a range of organizations and individuals, they systematically and rigorously evaluate the impact of various regulatory standards on health of large population groups, and make a recommendation on whether standards are needed and what their levels might be.

The EPA administrator then takes these recommendations in the context of other policy relevant factors and makes a decision on any recommendations to changes to the standard.

The process works: the air we breathe has improved dramatically and the economy has not suffered because of it. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act and despite an increase of more than 50 percent in the U.S. population and a 250 percent increase in the gross domestic product, there has been a 70 percent reduction in emissions of criteria air pollutants, and hundreds of thousands of have been saved each year. Children have grown up healthier. It has been one of the great silent public health successes of the past 50 years.

Dr. Patz’s lecture illustrated how climate change has multifaceted effects on a range of health conditions as well, ranging from emerging infections across the globe, to heat-related mortality, to chronic diseases, to effects on stressors and violence. As in the case of other environmental factors, the effects are usually felt the most by those who are already socially and economically disadvantaged.

Fortunately many of the policies that we know are good for health (like promoting active transportation and reducing the consumption of meats and processed foods) are also good for the environment. In addition many of these policies have the potential for reducing health inequalities. We don't have to choose: promoting health and health equity and protecting the environment are entwined and reinforce each other. What could be better for public health?