Why don’t we talk about health and the environment anymore? Political speeches are increasingly focused on “climate change.” We hear about rising water levels, coastal erosion, rising air temperature, storm severity, and melting ice caps. Because campaigns tend to talk in the extremes, “climate change” is either an impending catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions or a collection of scientific distortions costing jobs. If candidates get past the rallying slogan, they could debate scientific conclusions such as: are we experiencing the effects of earth’s natural climate cycles? Solar influences? Man-made industrial emissions? Destruction of forests?
Unfortunately, cooperative discussions often are not part of a campaign sound bite. Today’s politics are more about making a problem seem so big and so frightening that we are motivated to back the candidate who promises to rescue us from the Armageddon du jour. Let’s not forget solving environmental problems smaller in scope are still highly significant for current health.
Bipartisan environmental action, for example, has a history of clear public health benefits. In 1880 the average life span was only 35 years. By the mid 20th century life span has more than doubled. The biggest contributor to longevity is not new medications or better medical care. It is clean water and sanitation. We take it for granted that dysentery and cholera are rare in the USA because of clean water.
Air pollution choked urban areas from the industrial revolution into the latter half of the 20th century when congress took action. The Clean Air Act of 1970 signed by President Nixon, and the Clean Air Act of 1990, signed by President Bush, both passed with widely bipartisan support. Particulate matter such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide decreased by 73% between 1990 and 2015. As air quality improved, the risk of death declined by 27%. Significant health improvements are seen within weeks with reduced respiratory symptoms, hospitalizations, premature births and cardiovascular problems.
As I mentioned in my earlier piece this month, clean air and water should be among the top congressional priorities in 2020.
Energy generation for homes, offices, factories, and transportation is our biggest generation of emissions. Reducing energy waste, improving efficiency and creating alternative sources can massively reduce emissions. The stick approach of capping emissions or mandating certain energy production does not solve the problem. We must reach for new solutions. We are limited only by our imagination if we unleash the creative brilliance of America with a full-scale innovation revolution for clean energy. For example, the Energy Sector Innovation Credit Act sponsored by Representatives Tom Reed (R-NY-23) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA-20) uses tax credits to incentivize new energy technology for more efficient storage, pumped hydropower, thermal energy, fuel cells, flywheels, capacitors and superconducting magnets. Those tax credits are not just for the start up, but would continue long term with production.
The Challenges and Prizes for Climate Act sponsored by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-01) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL-03) uses public and private awards in prize competition for carbon capture, energy efficiency, energy storage, and data analytics. Historically, this approach has yielded new developments with energy efficient technology like LED light bulbs and hydrogen fuel cells.
Despite gains in clean water, many toxic chemicals still leak into ground and drinking water. Synthetic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), used in firefighting foam by the military, has contaminated the soil and streams around military bases across the country. The recently passed national defense authorization act requires the military to phase out its use within four years.
However, PFAS is also used in disposable food containers and non-stick cookware. When the food containers are sent to the landfill, PFAS leaches into the soil and water. According to the CDC, PFAS can interfere with reproductive hormones, cholesterol levels, immune system, liver and kidneys and increases cancer risk. The PFAS Action Act sponsored by Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI-06) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12) requires the Environmental Protection Agency to designate all PFAS chemicals a hazardous substance and just recently passed the House.
These bipartisan bills are among many before Congress that can have an immediate impact on improving public health if they are passed. There is far more that needs to be done, but rather than spend time only arguing about massive global policy changes, it is important to focus on what is doable right now. As America tunes out the mind-numbing political animosity in Washington, D.C. people are and will be paying close attention to what is being done to protect the health of our families. Congress should take these actions for the health of it.