Since its founding in 1872, the American Public Health Association (APHA) has been an advocate of improving the health of all U.S. residents. Every April, the APHA hosts National Public Health Week, a campaign to educate the public on current health issues. This year’s theme is Looking Back, Moving Forward, and its focus is on mental health (Monday), maternal and children’s health (Tuesday), violence prevention (Wednesday), environmental health (Thursday), education (Friday), healthy housing (Saturday), and economics (Sunday).
Thursday Is Environmental Health Day
Without clean air, water, and food, humans could not exist, which is why environmental health is so important. Life expectancy has greatly increased in the modern era, yet environmental concerns such as climate change have contributed to more frequent and extreme natural disasters, food insecurity, and a heightened risk of diseases spread by insects.
Poor environmental quality impacts already-vulnerable populations most, including the elderly, children, those with chronic health diseases, and people in poverty.
Yet, everyone can be exposed to environmental hazards. According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 23 percent of all deaths worldwide are due to preventable environmental factors.
Environmental hazards can occur in homes and include:
• Indoor air pollution
• Heating and sanitation that is inadequate
• Structural problems in buildings
• Fire hazards caused by electrical problems
• Old paint containing lead
• Asbestos in ceilings, floor tiles, roof shingles, and insulation
• Pesticides used in yards
Communities in low-income areas are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues. Cases in point include lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, and the coastal flooding due to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
Where to Find Information
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers environmental information on all types of hazards. People can input their location on the MyEnvironment page at https://www3.epa.gov/myem/envmap/find.html to check on such local environmental concerns as:
• Air quality
• Water quality
• Greenhouse gas emissions
• Hazardous substances in land
• Cancer risks due to toxic air pollutants
What to Do
If you suspect environmental hazards in your community, contact the U.S. National Response Center at 800-424-8802 or fill out the online form on the EPA website at https://echo.epa.gov/report-environmental-violations.
In homes, the EPA suggests everyone does the following:
• Reduce asthma triggers (see https://www.epa.gov/asthma)
• Prevent mold by controlling moisture (see https://www.epa.gov/mold/brief-guide-mold-moisture-and-your-home)
• Stop smoking indoors and in vehicles (see https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/secondhand-smoke-and-smoke-free-homes)
• Install carbon monoxide alarms (see https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/carbon-monoxides-impact-indoor-air-quality)
• Use and maintain ventilation systems (see https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/improving-indoor-air-quality)
• Test for radon (see https://www.epa.gov/radon)
The National Research Defense Council suggests these ways people can do their part to help improve climate change:
• Powering their homes with renewable energy
• Driving fully electric or hybrid vehicles
• Investing in energy-efficient appliances
• Taking shorter showers and turning off the tap when brushing teeth
• Not wasting food
• Buying LED light bulbs
• Pulling the plug when not using computers, cordless devices, and TVs
• Maintaining automobiles to run more efficiently
• Walking when possible
Environmental Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak
One of the bright spots of the novel coronavirus pandemic is that air quality, namely carbon dioxide levels, has improved due to lifestyle changes, including fewer trips by car, air, and water. But scientists warn that this respite is temporary, and there are precautions people still need to take during this time at home. Recycle plastics to keep them out of landfills, dispose of soiled items by double bagging and using secure containers, and continue to advocate to legislators on climate change issues, citing the recent improvements to air and water quality when people reduced travel and factories and businesses shuttered during the outbreak.
Sources: CNBC, “Air Pollution Falls as Coronavirus Slows Travel, but Scientists Warn of Longer-Term Threat to Climate Change Progress,” https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/21/air-pollution-falls-as-coronavirus-slows-travel-but-it-forms-a-new-threat.html; EPA, “Environmental Information by Location,” https://www.epa.gov/environmental-topics/environmental-information-location; EPA, “Report Environmental Violations, https://echo.epa.gov/report-environmental-violations; EPA, “MyEnvironment,” https://www3.epa.gov/myem/envmap/find.html; National Institutes of Health, “ Environmental Wellness Toolkit,” https://www.nih.gov/health-information/environmental-wellness-toolkit; Natural Resource Defense Council, “How You Can Stop Global Warming,” https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming; Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Environmental Health,” https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/environmental-health.
Photo courtesy NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/coronavirus-shutdowns-have-unintended-climate-benefits-n1161921.