The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) recently convened an expert panel to discuss connections between environmental quality and public health in order to discover opportunities for professionals and stakeholders in both fields to bridge gaps and inform efforts to bring about positive change.
Supported by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, CAC is a group of appointed residents throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed that advise the Chesapeake Executive Council on all aspects of the Bay restoration effort. As a voice for residents and stakeholders of the Chesapeake, members of CAC advocate for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the watershed restoration effort.
The moderators of the panel, Julie Lawson, director of the District of Columbia’s Mayor’s Office of the Clean City and Surili Patel, director of the Center for Climate Change, Health and Equity at the American Public Health Association, led a discussion in which experts highlighted how negative environmental factors disproportionately impact under-resourced and underrepresented communities. Dr. Sacoby Wilson, associate professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland-College Park, introduced the term ‘syndemic’ to refer to how health consequences are compounded by social, environmental and economic factors, and how that can worsen the impacts of diseases like COVID-19.
In light of the current pandemic, panelists explained that a public health crisis can highlight structural challenges and social injustices in unanticipated ways—spotlighting issues such as class, the safety of essential workers, access to health care and health insurance, food security, exposure to nature and mental health/wellness.
They also discussed the increased health risks due to climate change and climate justice, and how environmental conditions can, in particular, impact children and other vulnerable populations. Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director for the Children’s Environmental Health Network, explained that harmful environmental conditions can weaken children’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to viruses and adverse climate implications.
The panel served as an important reminder that environmental programs and legislation must include metrics for addressing public health disparities. Because the problems are intertwined and cumulative, the solutions need to be inclusive, just and systematic. Real change will require a multifaceted approach that focuses on communities that have been harmed the most by environmental degradation.
“What it really comes down to is community orientation,” said Witherspoon. “Making sure our communities are an integral part of any and all related public health work.”
Other panelists included Doug Farquhar, director of government affairs, National Environmental Health Association; Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists; and Liz Perera, climate policy director, Sierra Club.