Exploring how a clean, healthy environment improves well-being 

Back to Summer 2020: Volume 109, Number 2

By Tyler Norris

The environment has a tremendous impact on our health. Healthy soil supports crop growth, clean air decreases exposure to respiratory harm, clean rivers and lakes sustain the needs of humans and wildlife. These elements maintain the critical cycles of the ecosystem that keep this world alive.

We’re not just reliant on the natural world for our physical health. A strong connection with nature can restore and even improve mental well-being, including increased alertness, attention and cognitive performance.

On the flip side, a polluted environment can cause irreparable harm to individual and community health, leading to acute and chronic health concerns, ranging from premature death from air pollution to cancer from land and water contamination, developmental disabilities from mercury and lead, and more. An unhealthy environment can also destroy the natural systems we need to survive. Pesticides can break links in the food chain, polluted runoff can destroy the natural flow of rivers, and climate change can cause severe weather events and change growing conditions in food producing areas.

A healthy environment matters for all of us, but environmental conditions are not experienced in the same way everywhere. For decades, some communities have disproportionately felt the impact of a harmful environment, and that inequity has contributed to lasting legacies of poor health. Today, 133.9 million people in the U.S. — more than 40 percent of the population — live in communities with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate matter that seriously affect health conditions.

Some of the legacies standing in the way of equal access to a healthy environment include:

  • Environmental racism. ZIP codes that are home to low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to have contaminated water, landfills and pollution-producing factories, all of which have detrimental effects on health and well-being.
  • Climate impacts. Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases are destroying the natural world. The U.S. emits approximately 1 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases each year, an increase of 7 percent since 1990. Despite wide consensus in the scientific community about the nature of environmental problems that face society, political institutions remain a barrier to transformational change.
  • Intensive development. Large-scale systems in our economy — such as food, energy, transportation and land development — are contributing to increased pollution and land conversion, leading to deteriorating environmental conditions. Between 2001 and 2010, the amount of land developed in the U.S. equaled the state of Idaho in size.

Here are some solutions that can bring us closer to a clean, healthy environment for all:

Advance environmental justice. 

Environmental justice is the idea that our society must address and repair the disproportionate environmental impacts and exposure to hazards that communities of color experience. Years of living in poor environmental conditions puts them at greater risk for premature death and other serious health effects, including lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Promoting policies that can reverse these disparities at the local, state and federal levels is critical to advancing the aims of the environmental justice movement.

In Flint, Michigan — a predominantly black and low-income community — work remains to rectify the harm caused by the city’s lead-contaminated water supply, which exposed nearly 30,000 children to a neurotoxin known to impair brain development and nervous systems. In February 2016, the state invested in a large-scale lead pipe replacement program in Flint at no cost to residents. Replacing the city’s lead pipes is the best solution to protect citizens from lead exposure and ensure equal access to clean water. As of February 2020, the state had replaced close to 10,000 lead pipes in Flint with safer copper pipes. The project, originally slated to be completed by June 2020, is currently on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Projects like this one should not only occur in response to a crisis. Community leaders should be proactive in continually identifying risks to health, particularly those that impact vulnerable populations, and take necessary actions to prevent harm before it’s too late.

Address climate-related issues at all levels of government — including local.

As climate-related action on the federal and state levels continues to lag, communities across the country are taking matters into their own hands and implementing solutions to mitigate environmental threats and prepare for future challenges.

Dane County, Wisconsin, recently set its own goals to fight climate change: cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next decade and going carbon-neutral by 2050. The plan includes strategies to reduce energy use in buildings, increase the county’s renewable energy supply and reduce emissions across sectors. By reducing emissions, the county hopes to improve equity and justice for residents by ensuring a cleaner environment — and, in turn, better health outcomes.

Adopt an ecosystem approach that treats monetary and social factors equally. 

Preserving the environment does not have monetary value in our society, but environmental degradation will have a catastrophic impact on the well-being of future generations. Sustainable development places a high level of importance on protecting natural resources amid development efforts. The aim is to protect vulnerable communities from environmental harm and preserve the natural world for future generations. Sustainable development includes steps such as protecting ecosystems from harm in undeveloped areas, using recycled materials in industry and leaning on renewable energies to reduce pollution.

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes 17 goals covering a wide range of areas for improvement, from economic growth to hunger prevention to gender equality — each aimed at combating climate change and improving health outcomes and conditions for all. However, even the top scorers in the UN’s U.S. Cities Sustainable Development Report only scored a 69.7 out of 100. There is still much more work to be done across the country to meet the U.N.’s goals.

Living in a healthy environment and being able to connect to a thriving natural world should not be luxuries — they should be the norm. Government officials at all levels should consider putting in place more sustainable, equitable policies and practices. We only have one planet. Let’s take action now to keep it clean, healthy and safe for generations to come. 

Tyler Norris is CEO of Well Being Trust. From 1990-1995, he led Civic Assistance at the National Civic League.

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