Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Fifty years ago the Environmental Protection Agency was born, and we saw the enactment of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Wildlife Protection programs. Over the course of decades, we've seen amazing reductions in air pollution, improvements in water quality, and protection of wildlife habitats. Over the same period, we’ve also seen unprecedented improvements and growth in the economy, showing us that we can both protect the environment and expand the economy at the same time.
Unfortunately, a lot of those environmental protections have been rolled back over the past couple of years – and we're already seeing the consequences.
On April 21st, the American Lung Association released its 21st annual State of the Air report showing that about 150 million Americans (close to half of the US population) live in areas with unhealthy, dangerously polluted air. That’s 8 million more Americans than the year before.
A recent study to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that people who live in areas with long-term bad air have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Tiny increases in average particulate pollution can increase the risk of dying from COVID-19 by 15%.
The good news is that we know now we can do something about this on a global scale to protect people’s health.
Having clean air, clean water, and clean soil save lives, and it IS possible. In just three weeks, we're seeing evidence of this around the world. Some cities are seeing blue skies for the first time in decades, and animals are coming out to play in their natural habitats. Just like our bodies heal when we stop smoking or exposing ourselves to dangerous chemicals, so does the environment – and at a truly rapid pace. Mother Nature knows what she's doing.
Sadly, a global shutdown in the face of a pandemic is not the way to protect our environment. It’s hard to find joy in these improvements when people’s lives have been devastated and turned upside down.
But the COVID-19 response is teaching us lessons that we can apply moving forward to protect our environment:
Preparation: Just like scientists have warned about the risks of a pandemic for years, scientists have been warning us about the risks of environmental pollution to our own health and the health of our planet. There is mounting evidence that we must prepare to face these challenges.
If we use this time to prepare and plan to adapt to the changes that are foreseen, we will all be much better off as a society. Maybe it’s time for a “new normal.”
Wide spectrum of health impact: As with COVID-19, some of us will experience mild problems from pollution and climate change. But some of us will not be so lucky, suffering very devastating effects to our lungs, our brains, and even to the health of our babies. Some of us may experience wildfires, others toxic air pollution, and others poisoned water. We should realize that these are manifestations of the same problem, and the solution is protecting our environment.
Individual and global societal changes can happen quickly: In order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, people across the globe have shut down life as they know it to protect the most vulnerable and improve health. We CAN make sweeping changes when we are motivated. But instead of requiring something so drastic, the earlier we prepare for problems we can already see on the horizon, the better we will be able to protect ourselves from the foreseeable threats – again, this truth applies to our environment as well.
As we move forward, hopefully we take the lessons learned from this global pandemic to prevent future environmental pandemics.
Globally, as we continue to weather the COVID-19 crisis together and feel its effects every day, we should take some time to reflect on how we can make our lives better and healthier on “the other side.” Hopefully, we can take some measure of comfort in the fact that we have power over our future, over how we plan to protect our environment, and how that in turn will protect the health of our loved ones.
When it comes to our planet, we really are all in this together.
For more about COVID-19 and other public health concerns, you can follow Dr. Pathak on Twitter @NehapathakMD