How Advocates of the Environment Have Become Champions of Public Health

By path2positive

Air pollution has obvious impacts on our environment. Its effects on our forests, lakes and rivers are not new. Remember acid rain? Burning of fossil fuels (mostly by coal-fired power plants) produce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are emitted into the atmosphere, react with water and oxygen and fall to the ground. For many of us, hearing about acid rain was one of our first environmental wake-up calls. It was a sign that our pollution could come full circle to harm us. Thankfully, the 1990 Clean Air Act incorporated a cap-and-trade approach, which required cutting sulfur emissions in half, and allowed each company to decide how to do this. Power plants could then sell extra credits to other plants, and a new type of market was created. Smog was another big problem. It lurked above cities and served as a visual reminder that we had been spewing too much filth out of our tailpipes. Fortunately, smog regulations have also been quite effective at improving air quality.

Though we’ve had successes in reducing those dangers, air pollution and many other associated problems have only worsened since those days. Fortunately, however, given the weight of air pollution on our health, the once-defined “environmental movement” has morphed into a group of public health champions. Is there really a difference between protecting the environment and protecting our health anyway? Here’s the thing. Air pollution increases rates of asthma, worsens allergies, contributes to heart disease and diabetes, causes lung cancer, aggravates dermatological issues, and more. Calling air pollution an environmental problem is akin to having a no-smoking section on an airplane. Call it what you want, but it reaches all of us. You can’t cordon it off.

The more we learn, the clearer it is that there is no environmental problem that doesn’t affect human beings. Fracking chemicals leak into groundwater supplies, nuclear power plants release radiation across communities, toxic chemicals get washed down the drain into our waterways.

Champions of Environmental Health

Last week, the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a research institution within the National Institute of Health, announced 12 award recipients as champions of environmental health research. Aside from denoting a 50-year milestone for the field, this award is profound because it marks leaders with equal concern for environmental and health issues. “2016 marks 50 years since NIH began a dedicated research program to discover links between environment and health,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “It’s a complex research field that needs the attention of top scientists, and I congratulate these awardees for their outstanding contributions.”

Read through the list of award recipients and you’ll see that these folks became champions long before the award was established, many over the course of decades. The field of public health couldn’t have advanced this far without a visionary set of individuals at the helm. It goes without saying that these visionaries have all had to face industry adversaries along the way. They have had to be persistent and brave.  

The award presentation for these 12 environmental health champions will be held during the NIEHS 50th anniversary program, which is open to the public and being webcast from 10 a.m. to noon Easter Time on November 1. The program will also include several distinguished speakers, including Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, Public Radio International and James Hunt, former governor of North Carolina, in addition to others.

Climate and Health Champions

Of course there are many more than 12 champions working on issues pertaining to environment and health, and Climate for Health’s leaders are among them. Our champions include Dr. John Balbus, the Senior Advisor for Public Health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Mona Safarty, Director, Program for Climate and Health George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, and Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, just to name a few.

While the NIEHS is celebrating 50 years of their environmental health program, in many ways the field is just beginning to flourish. Health institutions need more leaders focused on encouraging discourse related to climate impacts, engaging in actions to move their facilities toward sustainable practices, and reaching out to other sectors to connect the environment and health dots. Climate for Health serves the function of joining leaders together and we offer research and resources to bridge knowledge and communication gaps.

Past environmental victories, such as those pertaining to acid rain and smog, can equally be deemed public health triumphs. They can also serve as roadmaps to similar efforts of our time, such as the Clean Power Plan, which will protect our health and slash the carbon polluting the climate. Two birds, one stone – just as two fields have dovetailed, quite fittingly, with one name: “environmental health”.

Anna Linakis Baker, Writer and Social Media Manager for Climate for Health, has worked in the field of environmental health for over 15 years. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in creative writing and has a Master of Public Health from Boston University. Email her at


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