The Missing Link Between Environment And Public Health

This post is from Pure Earth summer intern Taylor Carroll, an environmental studies major in her senior year at Lehigh University.

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Some may be surprised to hear that the Environmental Protection Agency is primarily a public health agency, but EPA administrator Gina McCarthy reminds us that’s where the organization got its start.

“About 45 years ago, when the agency was formed, environmental pollution was extraordinarily visible, in terms of black smoke pouring out of every smokestack. You had rivers that were burning, the Love Canals of the world . . . We recognized very directly that environmental pollution was making people sick,” McCarthy told Philly.com.

As developed countries placed greater emphasis on cleanup strategies, and made great progress, pollution became less visible. So we turned our focus away from brown issues and towards green issues, like sustainability. Both are important issues, however in recent years green issues have dominated our environmental agenda, often at the expense of brown problems.

This shift in emphasis, away from health, is also seen in academic programs training future environmental scientists.

Sandra Gualtero, Pure Earth’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, looks back at her environmental education, shocked at how little emphasis was placed on environmental health.

Trained as a chemical engineer and having worked as an environmental engineer in Colombia, it wasn’t until Gualtero pursued a Master’s degree in environmental engineering at Columbia University that she took an environmental health course.

“The class blew me away,” she explains. “I learned all about the health-related issues of pollution, something that was not a key concern in my training or field work.”

At the time, Columbia University offered a concentration in environmental health, but it wasn’t popular or a required part of the curriculum. This is a common trend in a number of environmental programs, with many environmental health professionals gaining more experience from the workplace than the classroom.

“The training of environmental professionals tends to be lacking. Every environmental program should have health as a core component. It’s what drives our work at Pure Earth,” says Gualtero.

Many programs emphasize green issues, such as biodiversity, deforestation and climate change, putting pollution and health on the backburner.

As a third year environmental studies undergraduate student, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience.

Courses about environmental history focus heavily on pollution, emphasizing how events like the Cuyahoga River fire helped trigger the environmental movement in the U.S. However, courses that examine present day environmental issues do not place that same emphasis on the health effects of pollution.

Invisibility Problem

Decades ago, the connection between pollution and health in the U.S. was obvious, but now it’s less striking.

“It continues to make people sick. The challenge we face today is they can’t see it, they can’t taste it, they can’t feel it,” McCarthy explained to Philly.com.

Like Administrator McCarthy, Ms. Gualtero believes the invisibility contributes to this problem.

“It’s because the health effects related to pollution do not occur right away, that the public and policy makers don’t make the connection between the two,” says Gualtero. “A large number of cases are about chronic exposure and not acute, making the problem less tangible. It can be years until the devastating health effects of pollution set in, and until then, it isn’t viewed as an urgent issue.”

To make matters worse, populations around the globe suffering the most from pollution, tend to live in poor, marginalized communities, and when they are aware of the problem, lack resources to do anything about it. Left with no other option, these people are continuously exposed and suffer grave damage to their health. Situations like Flint prove that this is not just an overseas problem, but also a U.S problem.

Toxic pollution may be less visible now in the West than it was decades ago, but in low- and middle-income countries, pollution is as visible and dangerous as it was in the U.S. 50 years ago. The World Health Organization reports that in 2012 an estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment.

As awareness of the enormous impact of pollution grows, it needs to move back to the top of the environmental agenda. This starts with our academic programs.

Environmental health training is often part of a specific health track, rather than integrated into all environmental programs. However, this is not true for all programs. More schools are taking steps to emphasize the public health aspects by offering degrees and courses in environmental health.

But health courses should be a universal requirement in all environmental degree programs. Pollution is a cross-sectional issue, affecting the economy, the environment and public health, and students need interdisciplinary training to address these problems and cut across silos in their professional lives after college. Programs at the undergraduate and graduate level can better equip their students by making environmental health a core and required part of the curriculum.

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