Happy 50th Earth Day. Happy what would have been my mother’s 97th birthday. Today, although stymied by the current coronavirus pandemic from going to hear Elizabeth Kolbert talk about her work on books such as The Sixth Extinction, I am grateful for all the wise women (and men, but especially the women) scientists and artists and writers and activists who have helped improve at least some aspects of environmental—planetary—health.
I was almost ten years old on the first Earth Day in 1970 and I remember quite vividly the day I saw my first bald eagle, soaring above a high mountain pass in West Virginia where my oldest sister lived. Bald eagles, of course, had been decimated by the use of DDT, the use of which was not banned in the US until 1972. Now, the bald eagle population has rebounded and they soar over my house here in Seattle almost every day. There is so much more work to be done, but for this, I am grateful.
One local wise woman who was an environmental and social activist and whose life and work I have been researching (and appreciating) is Hazel Wolf who died January 19, 2000 at 101 years of age. She worked on housing and health insurance earlier in her life (especially during the Great Depression) and then on environmental justice issues all the way up until the end of her life. She was a woman of action and an appreciator of life. She asked for a cookie right before she died. Here is something she said in an oral history interview with Susan Starbuck, author of Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment:
“I look out my kitchen window. Every morning the pigeons, and sometimes crows, get on the wire across the street and just sit there. When I’ve been out camping, I’ve noticed that very early the birds will get someplace and sit, enjoying the morning. It’s quiet. They have to spend all the rest of the day finding food. So when they get up in the morning, they just relax and enjoy the sun. I don’t know what they’re thinking about. I, too, like to site, look at things. This is the side of animal life that Darwin overlooked. He didn’t understand that birds have souls.” (p. xv)
Population health effects from climate change are established scientific facts. Like anti-vaxxers (anti-vaccinators), climate change deniers are not only wrong-headed, they are dangerous to everyone’s health (and to planetary health). Case in point: beware of the pets of anti-vaxxers since many seem to be refusing rabies vaccinations for their cats and dogs/ see “Anti-vaxxers now refuse to vaccinate pets” by Nick Thieme, Slate, August 3, 2017; at the same time, global warming is increasing the spread of rabies among animal hosts such as foxes in Alaska/ see “Ecological niche modeling of rabies in the changing Arctic of Alaska” by Huettman, Magnuson, and Hueffer, Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, March 20, 2017. And as a reminder, rabies in humans is almost 100% fatal (source: CDC).
The Centers for Disease Control has developed an excellent graphic depiction of the impact of climate change on human health, shown here:
Of special note in this graphic is the fact that mental health impacts are shown twice, associated with both severe weather and with environmental degradation.
A recent (November 25, 2017) NYT article illustrates the mental health effects from climate change for people who live in Rigolet, Labrador. As Livia Albeck-Ripka states in the article “Why Lost Ice Means Lost Hope for an Inuit Village” there are increases in depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide related to the disorienting environmental changes and increased isolation for villagers. “An unpredictable environment means disempowerment,” she writes and links this with the stirring up of the intergenerational trauma of colonization for indigenous people. But she also points out that mental health effects from climate change and environmental degradation affect us all. She quotes Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht as stating, “We weren’t around when the asteroid wiped out dinosaurs, but now we have humans in the 21st century who are trying to deal with a change to the world which is unprecedented.” Albrecht coined the term Solastalgia: “a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at home.”
But what can we individually and collectively do about climate change and about the health effects of climate change? Perhaps the most important action is to become better informed and more civically engaged in respect to these topics. TheLancet has a good website: Tracking the Connections Between Public Health and Climate Change which includes a synthesis of scientific evidence in The 2017 Report of The Lancet Countdown. In the US reliable sources of information include the CDC (resources linked above) and the American Public Health Association (APHA). The APHA graphic “How Climate Change Affects Your Health” (included below) is a bit overly-busy and heavy on the gloom and doom (and curiously does not include mental health), yet could spur helpful discussion in certain settings:
In order to emphasize the what we can do about it, I’ve been part of a team attempting to green the ugly weed-filled concrete planters in the main courtyard at the University of Washington Health Sciences—a courtyard with entrances to the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, the UW Health Sciences Library, as well as the UW Medical Center. The photos at the beginning of this post show the planters in their current (dismal, depressing) state, along with my tiny (art project!) protest sign next to a fake flower “blooming” in a pot. Our team wanted to plant spring bulbs and a healing garden full of water-wise herbs like rosemary and lavender, as well as indigenous healing herbs and native wildflowers. We have had a seemingly endless series of meetings with people from the medical center, the health sciences schools, the building and grounds folks, and the UW Sustainability group. Something that would appear to be easy to do is not. As I understand it, the (ugly concrete/example of Brutalist “raw concrete” architecture) Health Sciences building where this courtyard is located, is crumbling and leaking inside, including in the rare books collection of the library. We have been told that we can’t plant anything until the courtyard infrastructure and water membranes are replaced, which would cost millions of dollars ($7.5 million to quote one reliable estimate).
This is a somewhat trivial problem when compared with other environmental issues affecting our most vulnerable populations, but it is a daily reminder of the negative mental health effects of environmental degradation—including from poor choices for our built environment and health institutions.
The public health (and political) crisis in Flint, Michigan over their contaminated drinking water should be sending out much louder alarm signals throughout our country. Snowmagedden 2016–from a different form of water–is drowning out the dirty water, dirty politics, and dirty failures of our public health system. Note my use of ‘our’ and not ‘their,’ which would make it oh so more comforting and at arm’s length for those of us who are not living in Flint. Contaminated water supplies can happen in our own hometowns, especially with the widespread crumbling infrastructures and a diminishing focus on public health surveillance. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human need; it should be an equal opportunity necessity. But clearly it is not.
For anyone who has missed this part of our national news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) three days ago issued an emergency order over unsafe public water in Flint, Michigan, and assumed federal oversight of water testing and water treatment in the city of 100, 000–a city where 57% of the population is African-American and 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. This week President Obama declared a state of emergency over the Flint water crisis and has assigned an expert from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist in assessing the extent of lead ‘poisoning’ in children and then recommend interventions. As we know all too well, what with the effects of lead additives to household paint and gasoline, as well as other environmental sources, children’s exposure to lead has devastating effects on multiple organ systems, and especially on the developing nervous system. Lead exposure in infants (including en utero) and children is linked with cognitive deficits (lower IQ), learning and behavioral issues.
In 2014, city and state officials switched from using the nearby Detroit water supplies (which came from the much cleaner Lake Huron) to using the highly contaminated Flint River for Flint’s water, in order to save money. They also failed to treat the water appropriately to minimize lead leaching into the water supply from old pipes. And they failed to appropriately test the household water supplies, ignored residents’ complaints about green and brown and foul-smelling water. And the city and state officials, including public health officials, publicly denied there was a problem, even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, presented them with evidence of alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children she was seeing. As reported today in the excellent NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” by Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith:
“Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising…”
People have rightfully pointed out that this is clearly a case of a willful neglect of environmental justice. If Flint, Michigan was more affluent and ‘more white’ it is highly unlikely that this problem would have started in the first place, or at least it would have been more quickly and more efficiently remedied. As the EPA defines ‘environmental justice’ on its website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
In his characteristic no-holds-barred truth-telling way, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore is calling for the arrest of Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, claiming he helped create the water public health crisis in Flint. (See this MSNBC interview of Michael Moore by Chris Hayes, January 19, 2016.)
As a public health nurse, this complex and entirely preventable problem in Flint, makes me angry and sad. Not only because of the environmental injustice of it all. Not only for the longterm negative health consequences for the thousands of children of Flint exposed to lead through their town’s drinking water. Not only for the devastating effects on the parents of these children. But also because of how much it undermines any and all heard-earned trust people have in our public health system. That negatively affects the health and safety of all of us.