How did we do in 2016?

2016-summaryLast year I did a retrospective post of 2015, discussing the breakthroughs and the setbacks for environmental health.  The latest news of at the end of 2016 is alarming and anyone who cares about their health, the health of their families and their unborn children should take note.

Future of the Paris climate agreement
In last year’s retrospective I mentioned that the promises made at the Paris Climate Summit could result in the reduction in the fossil fuel burning that is also causing harm to us and our children. According to the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), global warming continued to break records. Yet Donald Trump has stated that he wants to cancel the Paris climate agreement. According to Fox news, he also promised to cut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations by 70 to 80 percent.

The future of the EPA
The mission of the EPA is to protect everyone “from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work”. Trump has chosen Scott Pruitt to head the agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has sued the EPA because of its policies to reduce pollution emissions. His take on climate change is that scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. Talk about spin!  That global warming is occurring and caused by human activities is agreed upon by 97% of actively publishing climate scientists. Apparently, Pruitt thinks that a score of 97-3 is still close..

Climate change is projected to harm human health in a variety of ways through increases in extreme temperature, increases in extreme weather events, decreases in air quality, and other factors. The pollutants responsible for global warming also cause adverse health effects. Last February, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a 123 page document which emphasized the impact of air pollution on human health from conception to old age.  How can the EPA possibly protect people when the head of the organization denies the risks and the organization becomes disempowered from the top down?

Good luck to Americans who believe that their newly elected politicians are making decisions in their best interests. The denial of the impact of pollution on human health may turn out to be more expensive than they realize.  Let’s hope that they take this into consideration when they revamp their health care system. The USA is second only to China as the world’s greatest emitter of air pollution so the rest of the world will need to brace themselves for the impact on their healthcare systems as well. Air pollution is not contained within national borders.

The most recent publication
Significant pollution exposures occur commonly in North American and European cities, not just in third world countries. The most recent study to hit the media regarding air pollution and adverse health effects was performed province-wide in Ontario and published in the highly regarded Lancet on January 4th, 2017. It demonstrated a significant link between living close to major traffic and developing dementia. Air pollution also impacts negatively on the prevalence and severity of many other common chronic diseases, on gene function, and on pregnancy outcomes for both mothers and infants.

According to Public Health Ontario, which produced the recent dementia and air pollution study, over one-quarter (27.8%) of Ontarians live within 100 metres of a major road or within 500 meters of a highway, leaving them at greater risk of adverse health effects associated with traffic related air pollution. Many schools (26.3%) and long-term care facilities (48.4%) are also located in these areas, putting more vulnerable populations like children, older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions at risk too.

Good news and bad news
The good news is that last year the World Health Organization reported that 56% of cities in high income countries have reduced their air pollution levels by more than 5%. Sounds good. The bad news is that they also reported that the same high percentage of cities still do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.

Exposure to air pollution can also be decreased through traffic reduction strategies, improved emissions standards and land-use planning policies that maintain a buffer between major roads and buildings with vulnerable populations. Let’s remember that the modern human is an “indoor species” – 90% of our exposure time to outdoor pollution actually takes place indoors, where we mix those outdoor pollutants with the indoor contaminants producing an even more polluted environment. We need better building codes to manage the indoor air quality and reduce our exposures.

Policy should be dictated by science – not according to the rhetoric of government party lines. We need more rules to protect us from the effects of air pollution, not less.

So take a deep breath and get ready for 2017. But maybe filter the air first.

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