Casting the spotlight on the link between our environment and our health

By - Integrated Care Journal

Casting the spotlight on the link between our environment and our health

Given the advances that have been made in improving our understanding of internal factors that affect our health – such as genetics, diet and physical activity – it seems strange that one of the more intuitive factors, our environment, is often overlooked. But the link between our natural environment and our health is a clear one. Understanding and explaining that link is vital in appreciating the full impact of climate change on our individual health as well as collective public health systems.

The gap in appreciation has less to do with our ability to understand the potential impact than it does with the slow nature of climate change compared to the cadence of most people’s lives. Whereas we can instinctively have concerns about the nature of the food we eat and the water we drink, it is so much harder to feel anything about the connection between global climate systems and our individual health status.

In the European Parliament, where I sat as the Vice Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, the link between health and the environment was a mainstay of the work it does in overseeing the regulation of food and medicinal products across the bloc.

After all, the very title of the Committee – the Parliament’s biggest in terms of legislation – explicitly links the two issues. And in doing its day-to-day job on regulating the products consumers use it does a good job. But this particular committee, like so many other institutions established to regulate our world, was established long before the reality of climate change was envisaged.

Let’s look at a key issue that has so far managed to bridge the gap between health and environment in the public consciousness: air quality. Again, we all instinctively understand that air pollution is a problem, and that contaminating our natural environment will cause us harm as well as harm to the natural world around us.

Yet it has only been in recent years that the true extent of the damage done to our bodies, and those of young children in particular, by the air around us has become widely appreciated. From the so-called “dieselgate” scandal to the move against burning solid fuels in urban areas to heat our homes air quality has become a staple part of any local election campaign.

The immediacy of the issue is the key here. If I breath in too much NO2 from car exhausts, I am putting my health at risk. So I avoid walking near busy roads, and avoid living in heavy traffic areas, if I have the resources to do so that is. Perhaps I start a campaign to encourage people dropping kids off at school to switch off the ignition when idle, or even to find an alternative method.

In many cases the action we can take as individuals to avoid harm are many – even if the solutions to much of the problem must be co-ordinated at a local, national or international level. It is the job of political institutions to inform citizens of what they need to do to take action on the former, and empower them to push for change on the latter.

But what do I do now about the effect on my health and on the health of the children at that school in 10 to 15 years’ time through changed weather patterns, reduced capacity in the healthcare system or scarce resources? How do I prepare myself for the kind of political debate we will be having when climate refugees become a reality and currently productive parts of the world become slowly inhabitable?

In a world where information is abundant but screened less by relevance than by the time it takes to digest it, we have to recognise the multiple challenges in play. Those challenges relate not just to the out-of-sync nature of climate change vs immediate everyday concerns but also how to communicate the threat in ways that don’t come across either as alarmist or irrelevant.

The Environment and Health Series from Public Policy Projects aims to address these very questions. How to relate the immediate concerns we all have about our personal, family and communal wellbeing with the slow-moving and often seemingly intangible threats posed by shifts in our climate. We aim to address not just the fundamentals of the issue – i.e. what the link between climate change and health is – but the different and sometimes counter-intuitive ways that we can act to mitigate bad effects.

We aim to take people on a journey from discussion and debate to pressure and action. We start from the approach that every actor – whether they be a citizen, a policymaker, an institution in the public, private or voluntary sector – has a role to play in developing the solutions. When we grasp the scale of the challenge before us, we can equip ourselves with the tools necessary to meet it. We hope that this series helps shine a light on the way forward.

About the author – Seb Dance

Seb Dance, former MEP for London (2014-2020), Vice Chair of the European Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and Deputy Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, has recently join Public Policy Projects to lead on new policy series including Environment and Health.

Read about the latest news on the Environment and Health Series here

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