Earth Day should be reminder of healthy body, healthy planet

As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy looks on, President Barack Obama discusses climate change and public health policy at Howard University in Washington last week.

While the 45th annual Earth Day is 8 days away, most local celebrations will be held in the coming week.

Earth Day events are at the Medical University of South Carolina on Wednesday, the Riverfront Park in North Charleston on Saturday, and Kiawah Island on April 22. These should be an opportunity to reflect on an idea that some don’t connect: What’s good for the environment is usually good for humans and vice versa.

Clean air, water and soil. Local organic food. Biking to school or work. A plant-based diet. Living simply. All good for the Earth and humans.

But those simple connections have gotten lost in the politics and polarization of the United States in the past two decades as too many associate the environment with former Vice President Al Gore instead of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, two of the greenest (and Republican) presidents to have served.

Last week may not have helped matters more, but President Barack Obama’s highlighting of the health impacts of climate change is worth keeping an open mind about.

Obama used last week’s proclamation of National Public Health Week to reinforce the importance of our public health system and the need to take action to reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities.

Speaking at Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., Obama said hazards of the changing climate include wildfires sending more pollution into the air, allergy seasons growing longer and rising cases of insect-borne diseases. Other impacts could mean more asthma attacks, heat-related deaths and injuries from extreme weather conditions.

“There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home,” Obama said at a roundtable discussion with health professionals. “Ultimately ... all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or from climate.”

Obama also announced commitments from Google, Microsoft and others to help the nation’s health system prepare for a warmer, more erratic climate.

Microsoft’s research arm plans to develop a prototype for drones that can collect large quantities of mosquitoes, then digitally analyze their genes and pathogens. The goal is to create a system that could provide early warnings about infectious diseases that could break out if climate change worsens.

Google has promised to donate 10 million hours of advanced computing time on new tools, including risk maps and early warnings for things such as wildfires and oil flares, using the Google Earth Engine platform. Also, Google’s camera cars that gather photos for its “Street View” function will start measuring methane emissions and natural gas leaks in some cities this year.

The Obama administration also announced a series of executive actions to reduce the health impacts of climate change on our communities, including the following:

Later this spring, the White House will host a Climate Change and Public Health Summit featuring the surgeon general to bring together public health professionals, academics and others to discuss the public health impacts of climate change and identify opportunities to minimize these impacts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Public Health Association will release a report, Adaptation in Action, highlighting how seven cities and state grantees that are successfully using the CDC’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects framework to identify climate-related public health threats and develop strategies to adapt to these threats.

Through the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Health Care Facilities Initiative, Health and Human Services is releasing a Health Care Facilities Toolkit consisting of 20 additional federal tools related to climate and human health, including an app that translates weather conditions into health-risk levels for outdoor workers.

HHS’s National Institutes for Health are teaming up with the Environmental Systems Research Institute (an international supplier of Geographic Information System, or GIS), and others to launch a national data challenge on climate and health. It will mark the first time that climate change and public heath will be the focus of a large-scale data challenge.

As part of the annual National Day of Civic Hacking led by NASA and Code for America, federal agencies will provide data sets, challenges and expertise in the areas of climate, health, disaster relief, oceans, safety and justice, and economic development to support the development of new climate and health-related solutions by participating citizens and civic hackers.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with state and local agencies, is announcing that it will release six new “Village Green” stations during 2015 in cities across the country to increase local air monitoring capabilities in communities.

The Village Green Project involves park benches that incorporate solar- and wind-powered instruments to measure air quality, namely ozone and particle pollution, and meteorological data (wind speed and direction, humidity and temperature). A prototype was installed outside a Durham, N.C., library in 2013 to measure local air quality, increase citizen awareness of air quality and deliver on-the-spot information about current conditions.

In May, as part of the Administration’s “Predict the Next Pandemic Initiative, an interagency working group co-chaired by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense, will launch a pilot project to simulate efforts to forecast epidemics of dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted viral disease affecting millions of people every year.

The pilot project will consolidate data sets from across the federal government and academia on the environment, disease incidence and weather, and challenge the research and modeling community to develop predictive models for dengue and other infectious diseases.

The Challenging Nutrients Coalition, which includes the Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to improve our ability to measure and understand nutrient pollution.

The groups are hosting a competition, underway now, to develop affordable and accurate sensors measuring nutrients in water related to algae blooms, hypoxia and other nutrient-related water quality issues that can impact the health of people and ecosystems.

Several medical groups applauded Obama’s public health activities, including the American Lung Association.

“Too many people think climate change is something that will happen far into the future, but we are already seeing impacts on our health today,” said Harold Wimmer, the group’s national president and CEO, said in a statement.

“Now is the time for bold action to protect our health and our communities from the dangerous impacts of carbon pollution and climate change, especially the health of our most vulnerable populations, children, seniors, people with chronic diseases like asthma.”

Obama and Wimmer weren’t the only ones to emphasize asthma as a public health issue related to climate change.

At the Howard event, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said the issue was “personal” for him because he lost an uncle to a severe asthma attack.

“We have more people exposed to triggers that can cause asthma attacks, and more asthma attacks mean more days of school missed. They mean more days of work missed. They mean more costly trips to the doctor,” Murthy said. “And they most importantly mean more scary moments for parents and for children.”

Longer summers and hotter heat waves, said Murthy, also will expose more Americans to heat stroke and to heat stress, especially those who work outside, the elderly and the impoverished communities with less access to air conditioning.

“An underlying principle of public health that I want to emphasize is that of prevention. Indeed, prevention of disease should be the driving force in our efforts to improve health in America. And whether it’s promoting heart health through nutrition and physical activity or preventing disease outbreaks through vaccinations, prevention really is our goal, and that is true here with climate change, as well.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.