The Limits to Growth argued that rampant pollution and resource extraction were pushing Earth to the brink. How does it hold up 50 years later?
Air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, according to a report published today.
This impact on global life expectancy is comparable to the impact of smoking, six times higher than that of HIV/AIDS, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, according to the Air Quality Life Index report, produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
“Air pollution can be difficult to raise the alarm about because it is something we experience every day,” Christa Hasenkopf, director of the Air Quality Life Index program, told EHN. “It can be hard to recognize compared to other threats that pose smaller burdens but are more visible.”
Research has increasingly shown that air pollution, even at very low levels, harms human health. This year the World Health Organization (WHO) lowered its threshold for safe exposure to PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — hundreds of times smaller than a grain of salt) from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Following that change, most of the world — 97.3% of the global population — experiences a level of air pollution exposure that’s considered unsafe.
Sources of PM2.5 pollution include car exhaust, industrial emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. Exposure to PM2.5 pollution is linked to asthma and respiratory disease, heart problems, high blood pressure, cancer, central nervous system disorders like epilepsy and autism, and mental illness.
The new report notes that despite the slowdown of the global economy during the pandemic, the global annual average for PM2.5 pollution stayed largely the same in 2019 and 2020.
The Air Quality Life Index estimated the impacts of 2020 levels of air pollution across the globe relative to a world that met the new WHO threshold. The Index references two studies out of China that found for every additional 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 pollution a person is exposed to, their life expectancy is reduced by 0.64 years, and combined that analysis with global pollution data to estimate the impact of exposure to PM2.5 pollution on life expectancy.
“We made the Index to make the health impacts and costs of air pollution more visible,” Hasenkopf said. “Air pollution is one of the largest public health threats of our time, but it’s highly neglected. The good news is that it’s also entirely solvable if we turn our attention to it.”
Wildfire near Ukiah, California, in 2018. (Credit: Bob Dass/flickr)
Under the new WHO guidelines, almost all of the United States — 92.8% of the population, up from just 7.6% under the previous threshold — are exposed to unsafe levels of PM2.5 pollution. As a result of the Clean Air Act, overall air pollution levels are significantly better in the U.S. than much of the rest of the world, but in some highly polluted places life expectancy is lower than in others.
In Pittsburgh, for example, none of the surrounding county’s seven air monitors have ever detected an annual average for PM2.5 below the WHO’s new threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2020, the air monitor in one of the region’s most polluted neighborhoods showed an annual average of 9.8 micrograms per cubic meter for PM2.5. If levels stayed below the new WHO threshold instead of at that level moving forward, residents would gain six months of average lifespan, according to Hasenkopf. The three-year average for the same monitor from 2017-2019 was 12.4 micrograms per cubic meter. If pollution levels stayed below the new WHO threshold instead of that level, residents would gain about nine months of average lifespan.
In California’s Central Valley, wildfires driven by climate change have caused spikes in air pollution in recent years. In 2020, average pollution concentrations ranged from 13 micrograms per cubic meter in Sierra County to 22.6 in Mariposa County, where residents could gain 1.7 years of life expectancy if PM2.5 stayed below the WHO guideline permanently rather than staying at 2020 levels, according to the report.
In some parts of the world, air pollution lowers life expectancy significantly more than the global average.
In South Asia, for example, residents are expected to lose an average of about five years of their lives to air pollution if current levels persist. In regions where PM2.5 pollution is particularly high, the cost is even higher: In Bangladesh residents lose nearly seven years of life to air pollution.
Almost all of Central and West Africa (about 97%) is considered unsafe by the WHO’s new PM2.5 threshold, and in some of the most polluted regions, average life expectancy is reduced by up to five years. This means that air pollution is as much of a health threat as HIV/AIDS and malaria in these areas, and could surpass the impact of those diseases if fossil fuel growth continues at its current pace in these regions. Other sources of PM2.5 contributing to pollution in these regions include waste burning, mining, mineral processing, cement manufacturing, high sulfur content fuel, industrial emissions, oil refineries and the use of diesel generators, according to the report.
Banner photo: Scotland activists gather in 2015 to demand clean air as Edinburgh Air Pollution Zone to be expanded. (Credit: Friends of the Earth Scotland)
What a time of change and growth!
We are pleased to share Environmental Health Sciences' 2021 Annual Report, highlighting the many activities we undertook last year that set EHS up for a strong 2022.
Download our annual report here:
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
2021 was a year of excitement and challenge for our small nonprofit.
And we watched readers – like you! – get engaged in ways that continually surprised us.
Photo by Jamie Coupaud on Unsplash
In just the first three months this year EHS staff has been a hive of activity:
Take a look at the work EHS did last year and be proud that you, as a reader, are moving it forward.
We certainly are grateful to you!
PS: Just this week we published a look at impacts one year after "Fractured," our groundbreaking investigation into spillover pollution from fracking fields in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Check it out!
Banner photo art by David Ryder for EHN.org
The concept of a food system in research classically follows a simple progression: a one-track path from farms to plates.
Equal space and weight are often given to stops along the way, including food processing, transportation, and retail. The diagrams also typically float aloof in space—unattached to any legal system, economy, or private entity. Despite their alluring simplicity, these characterizations fail to capture true imbalances of power and responsibility in food production, standing in stark contrast to modern food industry realities.
Large-scale food and beverage companies, engaged in processing and manufacturing raw agricultural materials for profit in global markets, are not just another step in the food system path. They play an outsized role in driving disparities in human health and environmental sustainability.
Source: USDA, 2021
Food processing companies currently make one fourth of every dollar spent on groceries in the U.S., with just a handful of companies controlling as much as 98.4% of the market share in some categories of prepared foods. By comparison, the country’s more than 2.5 million farmworkers, the majority of which are undocumented and unprotected by fair wage laws, get just eight cents for every dollar spent on groceries.
Food processing companies like Nestlé (Switzerland), Coca Cola (U.S.), Danone (France), and Unilever (United Kingdom/Netherlands) are bottlenecks in the global food system, exerting undue influence over both what and how much is produced by farmers upstream as well as what and how much is eaten by consumers downstream.
As Jeffrey Sachs poignantly pointed out prior to the United Nations’ recent Food Systems Summit, “We have a world food system. It is based on large multi-national companies; it is based on private profits; and it is based on a radical denial of the rights of poor people.”
Despite this concentration of power and wealth, international agendas for public health and sustainable food production often call for reform not by the most powerful food companies but, instead, by farmers and consumers.
The agricultural sector—a diverse set of small-, medium-, and large-scale producers found around the world—is widely criticized for greenhouse gas emissions, land deterioration, and water use. Little is mentioned, however, about the artificial demand created by food processing companies for derivatives of farmers’ crops and livestock, including refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and animal-sourced meats and fats. By encouraging overeating in their meals and product formulations, fast food companies and food processors create excess consumer demand, putting undue pressure on farms to supply massive quantities of cheap, unsustainably produced foods.
Far from determining the ultimate use of the whole seeds, grains, vegetables, and legumes they produce, farmers are increasingly trapped in cycles of dependence—relying on expensive and contractually bound use of pesticides and fertilizers to increase yields and compete in the global market. Their lands and production capacities are consequently degraded, creating new economic pressures and driving increased rates of suicide, all to meet food processing companies’ ever-heightening demands.
Instead of accountability, a U.N. business declaration called for food processing companies to “incentivize consumers as agents of change to create demand for sustainably produced, high quality healthy and nutritious diets.” Efforts such as Meatless Mondays, public education campaigns, and by-the-pound meat taxes on consumer purchases are often proposed as solutions to the bad behavior of individual consumers, who are purportedly “at the end of the supply chain [and] arguably in the best position to drive positive change along its entirety," wrote the authors of a 2020 article in Nature.
But changing consumer behavior is not a panacea. Efforts to shift diets not only face deep-rooted and reasonably held cultural norms, they must also come to terms with worsening food environments; poor purchasing power for healthier food alternatives like whole fruits, legumes, and vegetables; and an outcry against colonialism in the face of efforts to veganize already malnourished, protein-poor diets in low- and middle-income countries.
Despite these ethical concerns, many in the academic community continue to promote these and other small-scale interventions (urban agriculture is another example), which fail to reflect the lived realities of impoverished households and allow food processing companies to evade their own responsibilities—including their disproportionate influence over millions of diets around the world.
Although we’d like to believe that all food options are equally accessible, global food environments are being increasingly monopolized by large and highly consolidated food and beverage companies, each flooding grocery aisles with addictive products, employing aggressive marketing strategies, and, ultimately, driving excess consumption and diet-related chronic disease.
As outlined by Consumer International, “Many of the approaches for achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and climate targets rely heavily on consumers making different purchasing choices, or modifying their usage of goods or products and services. But this is not a fair responsibility to place on consumers where the current structure of the marketplace favors unsustainable options.”
Public health researchers must recognize the responsibility food processing companies have to reduce the health and environmental costs of their products. Efforts such as the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Four Pillar Framework fill this gap in advocacy and provide clear and practical guidance on corporate alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals in the food industry, outlining specific responsibilities held by the private sector to remedy past harms and modify business strategies to more ethically and sustainably produce healthy foods. As the bottleneck of power and wealth concentration in the food supply chain, the food processing industry is a far more effective and efficient target of reform than the diverse hundreds of millions of global consumers and farmers at opposite ends of the food system.
Research and policy must identify how food processing companies can mitigate damages caused to human health and natural environments. Instead of burdening consumers (who already shoulder the hidden cost of food through health care, pollution cleanups, and other public services) with increased prices or taxing of unhealthy foods, solutions should prioritize consumer protection by taking into account the intrinsic disparities of the consumer-supplier relationship, including disparities in bargaining power, knowledge, and resources.
Greater transparency of the environmental and social risks incurred by all actors in the food supply chain, not just agricultural producers alone, is needed so that consumers, policymakers, and investors alike can disfavor risky and unsustainable business practices. Government regulation must also look beyond current marketing and labeling laws (which simply put the onus of informed decision-making back on the consumer) to set and enforce strict standards for what food and beverage products can be legally produced and sold.
Food processing plays an important role in food and nutrition security, extending shelf-life and fortifying staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals. Far from complete abolition, increased attention and accountability for these powerful private sector players can ensure that food production contributes to—and does not continue to impede—human and planetary health.
Abrania Marrero is a PhD candidate in Population Health Sciences in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellow.
Banner photo credit: Viki Mohamad/Unsplash
Gavin Rienne joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss what children’s health can tell us about a community’s natural disaster preparedness.
Rienne, an epidemiology and biostatistics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health and current Agents of Change fellow, also talks about his time in the service overseas, kids' mental health impacts from Hurricane Harvey, and what role urban planning plays in bringing equity to natural disaster preparation.
The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.
Alright, I am super happy to be joined by Gavin Rienne. Gavin, how are you doing today?
I'm really good, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Excellent. And where are you today?
Right now I'm in Louisville, Kentucky.
Louisville. Excellent, what a fun city. Haven't been there in a long time.
Yeah, I've been here for…I came here to do my masters at the University of Louisville. And then I wasn't sure if I wanted to pursue a PhD. So I did my masters then went on to do my…and I’m just about couple months away from finishing my PhD.
Excellent. I always think of Muhammad Ali when I think a Louisville I'm a boxing fan.
Oh, yeah. Yes.
So you grew up far from Louisville, you come from Hollywood, California originally. And I, you have said your heritage is a community quilt of conflicting identities, which I think is such a beautiful turn of phrase. Can you tell me a little bit about growing up there and what you meant by that?
Yeah, so um, actually I was born in Michigan, but then we moved to California when I was, you know, as a child, very, very young. And I grew up. So I grew up in Hollywood, California. So I grew up in a very kind of heavy mixture of South American communities, Central American communities, a lot of various African communities as well. And so my cultural upbringing was really kind of a, kind of an amalgamation of these intersecting identities especially because the type of people that I interacted with were also those who were very also, who were very actively and proactively interested in understanding and expressing their culture and their heritage and things like that. So you know, you could, from… I was the type of kid who you always knew was going to be a scientist and the question was just what type of scientists you're going to be. Which meant, you know, I went to a lot of gifted programs and things like that. So as Gavin operating in public spaces, I was navigating oftentimes, you know, navigating very kind of white spaces, you know, filled in, you know. But then in my personal life, it was very much spaces that were dominated by what America considers ethnic minorities, and so you know, it was, you have kind of these very pro-me spaces versus going to kind of a, kind of very racially oppressive system that you know, the American education system can be for, you know, a young man of color so, yeah. It was very much a kind of constant conflicting identity source, go to school and you can be told you know, there's something wrong with you because of what you look, the way you are, whatever about your identity exists, but then at home in my home spaces, you know, it's nothing but you know, everything about you is amazing because of your identity. So it very much, I left very confused for while. It took a lot of navigating to kind of like settle down my own roots.
Yeah, that sounds really jarring. Especially, a lot of folks that have talked on here haven't had the, the one of the other, right, so they maybe they didn't get pushed into the kind of the, the white kind of monotonous spaces until later in life or they didn't have this exposure to a lot of diverse cultures. And that sounds like it would be really jarring for a young man.
Yeah, you know, as, you know, like, I met Maya Angelou when I was really young. And, you know, so for me, it was, oh, you know, we can use Maya Angelou, I grew up, you know, loving Langston Hughes and, you know, WB Dubois, like, I grew up, these are people that I grew up, knowing and loving and reading, and you know, just all their works. And then you know, of course you go to, and then at home and in art spaces, you hear about America's real history. And, you know, you know, at school, they're like, oh, you know, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and he's amazing. And I don't really, I’m like, no, he's like, a very bad person, in the polite way, he was a very unpleasant human being. And so, and that was pretty constant, you know, for me growing up. As I, even when we left, even, you know, leaving California, I live, I've lived all over the US now. And so it was pretty constant, a very very constant recognition. You know, I remember hearing about Henrietta Lacks when I was in, a freshmen in high school, and so all these people are talking about, oh, you know, the DNA is amazing. And, you know, they're, you know, constantly, there's this constant, then go home and hear the alternative. Well, yeah. White History is nice, but real history is a little bit uglier, and a little more honest. And it needs, you know, a bit more context, you know, things like that. So, I think I was, maybe it was in fifth grade, and they were doing one of those Thanksgiving things, you know, the whole, you know, the pilgrims and all that jazz. And the teacher is, you know, and she's doing the whole show, and everybody is yeah, and I’m like, “Is it really good to celebrate a day that led to the genocide of, you know, actual Americans?” And like, I just remember the room going, yeah, deafeningly silent. And I got in trouble. I'm pretty sure. Cuz, pretty sure I got in trouble. I'm pretty sure I remember going to, yeah that wouldn't have been the first time it happened. But yeah.
Well, there's a such thing as good trouble as, as we find out later in life. And I, so I could be wrong. But I think you're one of the first Agents of Change fellows that served in the military. And I apologize for any previous fellows that I, that I didn't know this about. But, so you were in the Navy as you finished up your college degree, what prompted you to join and what was that experience like?
Yeah, so um, I joined, I joined… I finished my first, so I have two bachelor's degrees, I have one in psychology, and my, the one I got when I left was in microbiology and molecular genetics. So I wasn't really sure, so I was finishing my third year, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And you know, if you get a psychology degree, if you're going, if you're planning on doing psychology, you need to do graduate school. And that's, you know, it's a huge commitment. And so I wasn't really sure. So I ended up going, not on a whim, but very much kind of a like a, I don't do well, with kind of like doing nothing. So I ended up joining, and I was in the military before Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed. So, but I also served it openly. And you know, I don't have anything really bad to say about it, besides, we all have bad things to say about our first jobs. You know, there are of course, unique things that are uniquely annoying about being in the military and frustrating and obstacles there. But for the most part, it was a really informative, life-changing experience that made me a better person. I spent, so I was, I was a sailor, I spent four years overseas in Japan. And so I worked out of a marine base that worked with the Marines, worked with the Army, worked with the Air Force as well. And so we coordinated and that's actually where my interest in disaster, disaster response and preparedness and epidemiology began. Because we coordinated medical relief efforts throughout the Pacific Theater, and throughout the entire Pacific Theater, to responding to tsunamis, Fukushima, we were coordinating the initial response to that, which you know, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Japan and so, yeah, it wasn't, it was an interesting kind of mind opening experience to be honest with you.
Yeah, well, first of all, thank you for your service. I think that's, that's incredible as a young man to kind of, not on a whim, but kind of take the reins like that to keep yourself busy and see the world. And you mentioned that maybe this was kind of an area where you started getting interested in environmental health and, that aftermath of disasters. Tell me a little bit more about that, and what you did next to kind of take that a step further.
Yeah. So um, so when I got in, it’s my first the boot camp, of course, you go in and then go do this thing called, this, A School, which is additional, additional training. So you finish all your basic training just to start to do your job. Like, I got on, got on the island, I think, May or June, somewhere around there. And I, like when I came in, a lot of people who would be my supervisors were kind of like taking their leave. So there’s kind of like summer leave, because in the military, where I was working, basically, the end of the fiscal year is around like that August, September timeframe, or whatever. So like, super busy, so nobody's, so you know, if you're gonna do any sort of leave for vacation, you do it well ahead of that timeframe. So I came in, and all all my leadership were gone, basically. So they were kind of like, in and out, taking their vacation, you know, ahead of this crunch time that's was going to be coming up. And so when I got in, there was nobody, there was, there wasn't really a good strong, like, okay, you definitely know where you're going to go. Which would surprise most people, who’ll sometimes think about military things that happens. But you know, and there were certain jobs that I wanted to do, and I want it to work in this logistics section, and the financial planning and logistics section of this office that I was working with. And so because there weren't as many, there weren't any like hardline, okay, you're definitely going to do this job, that you're assigned to this unit, but they hadn't, because the supervisors hadn't all got together, they got where they want to go. It was kinda open. And so I set up there, and I just made myself indispensable. So I started learning all the other things that they were doing. And so when the people who were running my section came back, I had reorganized all of their filing systems, I'd redone, I became, you know, became intimately aware with their electronic systems and the data system, things like that. And so they were like, I was like, I work here now, and they were like, I guess you do!
The nature of it was that, basically, that office coordinated all of the medical resupply efforts in planning and things like that for the entire theater. And so it got me into understanding how, because over 70% of military activities are actually humanitarian in nature. And so our job was obviously with, with medical supplies, and medical relief, and things like that, and those particular things. And so it got, it forced me to start thinking about, how do we prepare? How do we understand what's needed? How do we assess and evaluate the effectiveness of our work? And how do we do the same in preparing for future activities? How do we, particularly my, you know, big thing that I have then and still have now is efficiency? How do we, you know, I don't mind, we have to give all the money to do it, give all the money to do it. But generally speaking, that's really poor management of your resources, what you really need is targeted efficient resources with what I like to call our buffer zone. You know, so that's our, you know, our plus or minus just that, you know, for things when things go right, right or wrong. So that became my interest, I became very interested in understanding how there is a disparity in the needs for when we're dealing with things in Thailand versus the Philippines, you know, why did those things you know, different, differ. You know, obviously, because there's the difference in the, the geography of the region as well, the differences are related to the actual populations and the needs of those populations. And of course, the needs of the people we have to send to those, you know, our responders, what those people need are going to be very different and how all those things are going to impact our relief effort and relief need. And so that became very, a standing, became a rising drive.
I was still at the time I was finishing my degree in psychology because I was done with it, basically. So I was like, there's no reason not to. But then Fukushima happened, and that, the nature and size of that need were more so expansive, you know. I mean, you know, just I remember when it happened. I mean, you know, it's a huge overhaul, it's major, just organization and just required so much change. And so, you know, up until then, I had, because I've been doing this work, I got a good handle on what, you know, I got a handle on what I need to do to get an assessment of what was going on. And immediately, you know, I'd been working with people I'm with, and we're like okay, this is based on these prior activities, we know this is what's needed to respond here. And we're capable of going here. And then I was able to compare that with other disasters of a similar nature and say, okay, this is what this is, based on this, this, we can predict that this is what's needed here. And we did that in coordinating with a lot of other organizations to do the same thing. And so that kind of really started the ball rolling as far as an interest in disasters, and then with Fukushima, because it required an understanding of the direct impact of environmental disaster on some sort of supply needs. That became, I was like, Okay, wait, there's something here. And, you know, like, I'm finishing with a psychology degree, but I think I want to do this, whatever this is. I didn't know the term epidemiology or public health really, at the time. You know, the people I worked with were all medical doctors. So I thought I had to go get a medical degree. So that, I instead ended up leaving to go to Michigan State University to get my second bachelor's in microbiology and molecular genetics, thinking about how to do like the, the pre-med track. Thankfully, I realized I didn't have to do that. Because I don't care for that. But, yes, that's, that's kind of how I started from there. When I went to Michigan State, I did my, my degree in microbiology. And I worked on things from malaria to environmental contamination and pollutants, and their impact on these, this invasive fish in the Great Lakes. I worked on microbial filtration system efficacy after storm events, which is a really fancy way of saying, do our water filtration systems work after like major flooding events? You know, so are they still removing dangerous, you know, microbial contaminants from our drinking water and making, making sure they're still potable? Spoiler alert, not as great as ,not as good as we wanted them to be at the time. And we're better now. You know, so that's, that kind of started the ball rolling.
And fun fact, I believe I was getting my master's in environmental journalism at Michigan State University when you were there. So I like to think that at some point, we, we maybe were in a line getting coffee together and had no idea.
It is entirely possible. It's entirely possible.
Talking here today, so before, I want to hear more about your work currently on natural disasters, but first, I've been asking everybody on the podcast, what is a defining moment, or event that shaped your identity?
As a scientist or as a person?
I will leave that to you, personal or professional, whatever you're comfortable sharing.
Yeah, um you know, it's not an uncommon question. And yet every single time, I think I have an answer for it. And then, and then I realized that I don't. As a professional as a, professionally, probably my first my first lab, once I left the military, I worked in this malaria research lab. And part of my job was rearing mosquitoes. And so you'd raise somewhere between 700 to 1500 mosquitoes per breeding session. And it was a really defining moment, because it was, like I was, I was my first purely, like, I was in charge of this whole portion of this lab part and part of a team. And it really, I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but this was like a really hands on I'm leading my own thing. So that was a really defining critical moment that really submitted that this is what I wanted to do, that I was heading in the right direction, even even though I knew somewhere along the lines, like how we get there, and what research I do, I would do would change a little bit. Personally, there's a lot of those moments and a lot a lot of similar moments. Probably. There's a moment where a former mentor of mine had reached out because I wasn't sure if I wanted to make a certain professional choice. And she reached out she said, you know Gavin, there are some people who choose the job. Some people who decide to you know, become a doctor or become a lawyer or whatever. But there are some people who are meant to do certain things, and she was like, you are meant to be a scientist. So go to graduate school. Because there was a time when I wasn't sure I was going to do that. And so she was like, go to graduate school. And so she was the one who pointed out U of L to me. And so…
Excellent, what a what a, what a great anecdote that is, it's so, it's those mentors, mentors that give us those little pushes of confidence at that point. Because when you're just going to grad school, or even when you're there, in the midst of it, it's a trying time on the confidence, it really is. Because you're, you're made to feel often that you are not at the level of the people you're trying to get to. And you're and you're kind of consistently beat down. So those, those little pushes can mean a lot.
It's a series of events, and, and lessons in humility. That's, that is, that's graduate school.
That's a nice way of putting it, humility. So as you said, your research now, you've stayed on this track of looking at natural disasters, and you're, you're focusing now, you're looking at depression and mental health in children and Texan communities after Hurricane Harvey. So what can depression in children tell us about disaster recovery? And what has your research found so far?
Yeah, so, children are kind of at the low end of the totem pole, right, as far as communities are concerned. Like they get, they are, they are the proxy for everything. How many, you know, the wealth of access a child has to various resources is a reflection of the community’s funding, their parents’ funding and things like that. So children are kind of, they're the canaries of the community. If you want to know how well a community is functioning, and how healthy it is, you measure a child. You look at, you know, also, they're also really good because we generally have really good measures, and collection of data with relation to children, because they have to go through so many different systems, because there's so many different regulations and laws, obviously, regarding care of our children. And so they are often just a really good consistent strong data point for anybody who's interested in understanding the health of a community. I have worked, I got into, I started actually, started doing kind of some relationship to child research when I was doing my second degree. It looked at child behavior and like child trauma behavior. And then from now, I've worked in some community work. And so what, what we, what we find, what, what's well known is that after a disaster, the people who are most impacted are women and children, in general. And then of course, you see increased impact by those who are historically oppressed anyways, so margin, you know, additionally marginalized groups, or racial minorities, and people who are, you know, immigrant, different immigration statuses, those people will be more impacted as well. What we know, particularly depressing, is that if you are a person from a marginalized group, who are impacted by disaster, and then of course, childs are one of those groups—let’s say, you're both running down the street, maybe you're a person from Group B, and the other person, group A. Group A is working, they're working, they're running 100%, in Group B is running at, you know, let's say 80. The disaster hits both of them. They both dropped down to 40. Now they're running at 40%. The person in Group A, because they have more resources, they are already running at 100, they will likely rise back to 100. But this marginalized group, that Group B, their new, their, they won't return to normal. Their new returning state will be lower than before. So, and in, what gets particularly frustrating about it is it compounds. So you know, it's not you know, I'm looking at hurricane Harvey, which happened in 2017. But there are disasters prior to that. And there are disasters, of course, that have happened since that. And then of course, now we're also dealing with COVID. And so these disasters aren't one offs, they don't get you know, it's not like a year later, everything's fixed, and now they're just kind of doing—no, they compound. And so when we are looking at, not only is it, not only are children a good reflection of what's going on in the community as it stands right now, but they're really excellent measure for how do we assess the longitudinal recovery, efficacy, of our relief efforts and goals, as well. And so it's that latter part about how do we measure longitudinal kind of life course, recovery? That is real focus of my interest and work.
And you talked about how this one size fits all approach to disaster planning and recovery doesn't work, and you notice that in the Navy, when you're looking at different countries out there. So now that you're back in the U.S., can you talk about this and how the U.S. has not performed perfectly in that regard to put it nicely? And what we could do better to protect vulnerable communities?
I mean, the most, the best way to think about that actually with COVID-19. It's really the most pressing way to think about it, you know? Because sometimes it's not necessarily do they have a one fits all? It's also if they don't have one, right. So right now, of course, there's all this conversation about vaccinations and mask mandates. And the problem there is that there wasn't a uniform, there wasn't a uniform response. So in this case, we needed a here's a uniform, we need to work together to create a coherent response. Reason this one will work is because we know it works for everyone. When you sometimes, another one that people could just generally relate to is, of course, things in, my time’s wrong, but Bush's No Child Left Behind law. It was a huge backlash, backlash against in sense because it kind of had this, everybody has to meet this standard. But the problem with it was that it didn't necessarily take into account differences in different communities. It didn't take into account that there are language barriers that might, you know, take a bit longer to meet the standards that he set, his, you know, his academic standards and things like that, his goals. And so when you have, the problem with a one size fits all, we're like, it's kind of like shotgunning, you know, we just hit everybody with the same thing. We all have different needs. And so this is kind of that conversation in the circle, we talked about, you know, equity versus, you know, equality. We're interested in saying, you know, we want you all to be able to do the same thing, but we all have different needs, we all have different things that are needed to get there. A person who is blind, they don't need the same resources as a person who is not visually impaired. So we both need the sort of the resources to get, you know, to a point but, but what we need to get there is going to be different. And so when I think about disaster response, a driving goal for my dissertation is how do we empower communities to identify their own specific needs, in a way that's quantifiable, and objective. So that it encourages communities to be their own, be their best advocates for their own needs, as opposed to kind of some external force saying, let me fix you.
Do you have any examples of solutions? A lot of this to me sounds like urban planning, kind of intersecting with, with the kind of research that you're doing. And I'm wondering if you have examples in places where maybe how urban planning has incorporated environmental justice and thinking about things like disability into its preparedness for hurricanes, heat waves and other disasters?
Yeah, so hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Harvey is actually a really good kind of discussion point for a really kind of complex conversation there. Because we think about. So like, like Katrina, and part of the issue with Harvey was not just, you know, the rising frequency and severity of storms. That's, that's a big issue. But it's also it's actually just the actual environmental layout. And what I mean, you know, in Katrina, of course, they talked about the levees and things like that. And hurricane Harvey, the issue is actually floodplains. Texas floodplains are a problem, and because of urbanization, where you have more people moving from rural areas to these urban cities, and it's causing such a massive just a massive impact on the physical landscape of Texas, and so and, so floodplains essentially, are basically what they sound like, they are areas that are more prone to flooding. And areas that are particularly prone, of course, are ones that are more historically, are poor neighborhoods and things like that, which, you know, has it's clear relationships to social inequities. And so, policies, when thinking about policies, when people, when urban planners and insurance, insurance policymakers and things like that are coming up with how do they assess floodplain threats and things like, that they do these things based on, you know, we hear these meteorologists and things talk about once in a 500 year storm or once in a 100 year storm. That's an actual term that does actually have a meaning. And so it's based on, it's based on history, though, not probability. And so it doesn't necessarily take into account the rising impact of climate change. It doesn't necessarily take into account basically what actual life looks like, on the day to day right now, basis. And so it's not really up to date. And so, when you're thinking about how do you, how when you're doing urban planning and policymaking, in looking at this relationship between disaster plan, planning and preparedness, and also just environmental justice, if you're not taking into account the actual lived experience of what you're trying to assess, and you're also not staying up to date with the actual threat right now of climate change, which is, you know, the, the global threat to our species, your policies are always going to be very, they're not going to be optimal, they're gonna be suboptimal. And so that's kind of a rising issue. And so it's one of the reasons why I decided to research hurricane Harvey, myself, for my dissertation for that very reason. It allows, it gave me this opportunity to explore my own particular research interest in standardization and understanding how do we evaluate communities and their need, but also to bring to constant conversation, which I think is something you know, that you, think is really, really important to me is to constantly try to be bringing in that conversation, this is really important, we need to constantly be aware that our preparedness, acute response and longitudinal disaster response has to be dynamic. It has to incorporate what is going on right now, with the mind of preparing for what's going to happen in the future. Because it's only going to get worse.
This seems to me that, you know, to ask a policymaker to have a grounding in climate science and sociology, and public health is probably a pie in the sky dream. So it seems like that someone like you, it would be really important to be able to communicate this, and I'm kind of thinking about what your, what your science communication role has been so far. If that's fit into your work so far, and if not, how it'll fit in moving forward.
Yeah, um, so I've done, I've worked in, I've done a lot of different jobs related to, that's kind of resulted in me having to speak to various groups. Policy groups, and things like that, as well. And, you know, just non-scientists in general. And, um, I think, I probably take, obviously, as a graduate student, as a doctoral student, you know, my first thing is finishing my degree. But I think I take my role as an educator as well, because I've been teaching now for like, four or five years, as seriously as I do my research role. Because it's still, you know, the majority people I teach are not going to be epidemiologists, you know, I teach a lot of, you know, masters students who will go on to become medical doctors or, you know, health communication specialists of some sort, in their own right. And it's just so important that we figure out, we continue to focus on ways to explain not only what's going on, but my opinion, my goal is to help people understand how to understand and consume future information. You know, I can tell you right now, that, you know, based on “insert number of factors” you know, climate, you know, climate change is the existential threat to our species. But more importantly, I want a person who's leaving from a class that I'm teaching or, you know, lecture that I'm getting of some sort, to understand how to, you know, tomorrow when the next news piece hits, he gave me some tools to be able to parse apart what they were saying a bit, you know, more accurately as opposed to just saying, ‘this is what it is’ now. I'm, I'm interested in helping you understand how to dissect that information more readily.
So I have a couple more questions here. And one of them is, natural disasters are so top of mind for people across the U.S. right now. From, from wildfires, I mean, even up here in northern Michigan, I had wildfire smoke this summer, which was a first, to the point where I couldn't, I couldn't do my bike rides at night. So it's even affecting me, but it's, you know, natural disasters are just becoming more frequent. And I want to, if we can, kind of end on a positive note. If you're talking to somebody out there who's worried about the increasing frequency of these natural disasters, what's something that we can take, what is some, where are you optimistic in the in the kind of in the field that you're in right now and where we're moving?
I mean, the reality is, so there's, there's a couple of things. I'm big believer in, you know, laying out where you are, and then laying out what that means. So the truth is, like, it's not going to get better. Um, if we were to do, if we were to be able to fix everything right now, there's a, there's a big like a lag effect. We've done things we've done. Yeah. The people in power have ignored the necessary experts for so long that we now have to just kind of deal with the drag effect. So it'll get, it'll get worse on all levels, you know, including natural disasters. Actually, I'll, we can also think of things like pandemics as, pandemics is a natural disaster as well and there will be more of them. That being said, we are, we have the technology and the capacity to not only respond, but to completely revolutionize our entire infrastructure, both physically and socially. We simply lack, we simply just have to do it. There's no, you know, with relation to you, you know, growing food shortages and water shortages, and how do we move in our spaces? How do we save energy? There, the solutions are there. There are no, you know, science, scientists, we've been working on this stuff for the last like, you know, 20 to 60 years. This is, we aren't in the dark, we're not, you know, it's not like we are up the creek without a paddle, we know what to do. You know, so if anything, I find a lot of comfort in that. So the solution isn't, scientists have to find the answer. The issue is we need to get our legislators to do the, you know, to, to implement the answers. You know, if you, as a great example, you know, if you were, remember, if you were in the late 90s, early 2000s, we heard about, you know, holes in the ozone layer. Those aren't really a problem anymore. We enacted some amazing policies, and those are not, we recovered significantly, so we can enact policies that have global impact, you know, on the scale that's necessary. So we're not, it's not, we're not beyond the pale. So that, for me personally, was where I draw the most kind of like comfort, it's like, there are, there is hope there are the solutions, the answers are there.
For sure. And the ozone is a great example. And I believe, was that the Montreal Protocol? And that, of course, I mean, that was an international agreement. Yeah, I think when it comes to climate, we look at the Paris Agreement. But I think when it comes to climate, that is what is needed is this kind of across the board, all hands on deck.
Yeah, and then, the answers, you know, there are various aspects to what is driving climate change as far as you know, obviously, talking about fossil fuels. But you know, how we use our basic, which all boils down to the basic issue of energy efficiency. And, you know, but it's not just that, there are other aspects about environmental contamination and pollution, things like that, and all those things, solutions to every aspect of that are already there, we just need to scale them up. And so, it's not, so it’s frustrating. And it's, you know, really terrifying, you know, for good reasons. But I don't feel hopeless, because I know, not because I like feel that way, nope, because I can, I can actually point out, here's the solution that somebody said. You know, we're concerned about food shortages—we know that vertical farms are incredibly energy efficient and water efficient. And they're, you know, easily to adapt pretty much wherever you want to go, especially in urban communities. You know, so those are, things like that, that just make me you know, kind of hopeful.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for that. I, full disclosure, I, that was a curveball. I did not. Gavin did not know that question was coming. And to ask a disaster preparedness researcher to throw some optimism out there is not, not an easy thing to do. But I appreciate it. So Gavin, the last question I have for you is what is the last book you read for fun?
I, you know, I have it, I’ve just been on a reading—anybody who's done a PhD will know that there oftentimes, you go through periods where you're like, everything but doing your PhD is more fascinating. So, everything but my PhD has been absolutely fascinating to me. So I was actually just reading a series called Disgardium, which is a very, it's a very, very niche genre called LitRPGs. So I…
Tell me a little, no, you can't leave it at that! So, what, so that means role playing game, right?
It is, it is. So you know what D&D is? And most people at least have some idea what it is. Imagine, imagine a book or series that everybody, even if you've not read it, cuz I don't really care for this series, but if you've read or know what Harry Potter is, right, so you know that this Harry Potter kid goes through university, the school or the school of magic? Hogwarts, right? So imagine the story is, instead of just about, oh, he beats a wizard, he beats Voldemort. It's about, it's more detailed discussion about how he gains his new powers and how he does in his classes. And it's kind of like, tell the story almost as well as how you might be reading if somebody was actually reading you their developing of the character and like the end game sort of thing. So it's, the LitRPG stands for literature RPG, so it's kind of, it's a really weird very, you have, it's a very nerd specific sort of genre. You got to really love the nerdy aspect of things like D&D and the math that goes into it. It's really really nerd specific. And when I, honestly, because of my work, I don't, none of my like entertainment or relief involves realism at all. All of my entertainment is completely just complete separation from reality entirely. And so that sort of level of nerdery is, is far from reality and possible.
Well, I can relate, I had one guest on here who turned the question around on me and I turned to my bookshelf. And it was a stack of graphic novels that I was reading. Because I am the same way, I don't read about the environment, in my spare time.
Yeah, no, I can’t, it’s just like you know. I, because it's either I'm doing my, part of my research my work, or of course, you know, a lot of my colleagues are sending me articles that are interesting, then, you know, my professional feeds, my professional, you know, feeds are, of course, filled with doom and gloom and things like that. And even the occasional like article who's like talking, who like myself is like, hey, this is really terrible, or here’s great things going on, you know, so yeah, or myself, or like, usually I'll be that sort of thing, or I'll have various graphic novels that are kind of working through right now. Like I'm working through Tower of God right now. So.
Cool. Awesome. Well, Gavin, this has been so much fun. I wish we would have met and had coffee 10 years ago in East Lansing, but I'm glad we're here now. And you're a fellow and thank you so much for doing this.
Thank you so much for having me.
This is part 4 of our 5-part series, Pollution's mental toll: How air, water and climate pollution shape our mental health.
The more people experience climate change, or even hear about storms and wildfires, the more it is expected to impact their mental well-being.
Some mental health experts have started preparing for the tsunami of need some leaders anticipate in the coming years.
A small group of high school students from around Pittsburgh set up chairs in a circle on the patio outside of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for a monthly climate action meeting, organized by Communitopia.
Each student expressed their own reasons for getting involved, like Claire Bertolet, a 9th grader at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, "I'm afraid life is not going to be like it is today, and we're not going to be living as comfortably," she said. "In the future it's going to be too late and we're not going to have time to act on it."
Some expressed concern for social and environmental justice, others for the impact of large corporations on the climate.
Allderdice junior Malcolm Kurtz is an avid hiker and bird watcher. "I am really concerned with how species are affected by climate change," he said. Kurtz finds meaning in climate work, while Ava DiGiacomo, a sophomore at North Allegheny High School, said the state of the world sometimes makes her feel helpless.
"This summer I started spending a lot more time outside, and there were moments when I would just sit and think, 'This world is so beautiful, and it's slowly getting ruined,'" she said. "And sometimes it feels like, personally, I can't do anything that's really going to make a big change. And that's not that's not an easy feeling to deal with."
But they are creating community around climate action, so they don't have to do it alone. On the evening they gathered in early October, some had just attended a climate march, and the group had organized a bicycling event called Pedal-Topia.
Rebecca Carter, a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, appreciates the community they are creating. "Things like Pedal-Topia, where we can get together and do something in nature as a group of activists can be really helpful and cathartic," she said.
Dr. Elizabeth Haase, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's climate change committee, thinks students like this are on the right track. Feelings of anxiety, grief and longing for what's been lost in the environment, and worry about what will happen in the future with climate change, are all becoming more pervasive, according to Haase.
She's among a growing group of mental health professionals pushing for more climate awareness among counselors. Haase is also on the steering committee of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, which is growing. "I think in five years we've gone from being a band of seven to eight people to 240 members," she said. The group has a directory of climate-aware mental health professionals.
Treating climate anxiety is not the same as clinical anxiety disorders, according to Haase. "It's a different animal, a different response when you're facing a real world problem," she said.
She compares it with treating someone with claustrophobia. She would encourage that person to face their fear, and spend time in enclosed spaces, like a subway car.
"That is not an appropriate response when the subway car is on fire, right?" Haase asked. "The subway is on fire. You don't want to sit there and let your fear wash over you. You want to start doing stuff."
When her patients express concerns about natural disasters, climate change and ecological collapse, she advises them to find ways to talk with their family and friends about it and also to take action - join a climate group, write to their local congressperson, or pack up photographs and important belongings in an emergency backpack.
"Even just doing something like that gives you a greater sense of control, and it creates a safer space for you to be in when something bad is happening," Haase said.
Rebecca Carter, talking with Julie Grant of The Allegheny Front about her concerns about climate change. (Credit: Njaimeh Njie)
Dr. Gary Belkin, a former deputy health commissioner of New York City, and founder of the Billion Minds Institute, which is focused on the social aspects of climate change, wants the mental health community to start taking action quickly.
He already sees more mental health needs than there are available therapists, and climate change - the heat, droughts and wildfires, and general background stress it causes - is going to make that worse.
"We really have to get good at rethinking how we can reach a ton of people across that spectrum, and the only way we're going to do that is by enlisting communities to be part of doing that," Belkin said.
Belkin spearheaded a program in New York where mental health professionals trained employees at child care centers, churches and programs for at-risk youth, places that he calls the front lines for mental health.
"We skilled those staff in screening for distress and illness, for basic counseling skills," he said. "We have to engineer things so you don't have to look for care or support. You trip over it. And that's really what we have to aim for."
Walter Lewis, CEO of the Homewood Children's Village in Pittsburgh, says a few years ago he wouldn't have connected climate change with the mental health of his organization's clients. That's starting to change. (Credit: Njaimeh Njie)
One group on the front lines in Pittsburgh is starting to look into climate change and mental health: the Homewood Children's Village. It has six advocates that stay in touch with 300 members, including more than 100 families, according to the nonprofit's CEO, Walter Lewis. They regularly check in about education, economics, food, and health, including mental health.
"Probably three or four years ago, it would have never dawned on me to think about some of the types of trauma and mental health impacts of climate change," he said.
Disadvantaged communities like Homewood are expected to experience worse climate impacts than their wealthier neighbors. Lewis now sees the neighborhood's high rates of basement flooding, and childhood asthma, as potentially climate-related. So even though his advocates are not mental health professionals, Lewis says he can raise their awareness about how traumatic these types of incidents can be for their clients.
"People are now more empathetic to knowing that, 'Hey, we just had a heat wave, these are some things you might want to think about when you're talking to your families or the children that you work with,'" he said.
Dr. Kenneth Thompson and his daughter Alice Thompson (pictured in Shadyside) (Credit: Njaimeh Njie)
As the number of people reporting anxiety and stress around climate change grows, others in Pittsburgh are trying to expand the available mental health care.
Dr. Ken Thompson, a community psychiatrist, based at the Squirrel Hill Medical Center in Pittsburgh, and his daughter Alice Thompson, a fourth year medical student, have been working to bring Integrated Community Therapy to the U.S. through their Visible Hands Collaborative.
Currently their free sessions are held twice a week online.
A trained facilitator welcomed more than a dozen people to a recent Tuesday evening online session, using a technique practiced in Brazil for 27 years, where in-person groups as large as 200 people gather to share their experiences, learn from each other and gradually deal with problems in their families and neighborhoods.
"The goals of this method are to help people learn how to express themselves and sort of have emotional literacy, how to talk about their feelings, and how to help people develop a sense of empathy with each other," Ken Thompson explained.
Facilitators are trained over months, it doesn't take years like mental health professionals. There are now around 40,000 facilitators in Brazil, as well as other countries, and the Thompsons are starting to train facilitators in the U.S.
"Having a safe space that's sustained over time is going to be really helpful, especially as climate change progresses," Alice Thompson said. "It will allow people to connect not only over their trauma, but also externally so they can support each other in other ways."
Her father continued, "It becomes a real powerful glue, and I feel like we need a lot of glue in this society...to keep us hanging together," he said.
In our polarized society, efforts like this are starting to help more people re-learn how to talk with others, and see their shared humanity, and hopefully reweave some of the community fabric that's been pulled apart. Because as the climate worsens, people are going to need each other.
Banner photo: The student climate strike on September 24, 2021 in Pittsburgh brought out more than 150 young people. Experts say this kind of action can help people who are anxious about the climate crisis. (Credit: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front)
This story is part of a collaboration between Environmental Health News and The Allegheny Front for a series called "Pollution's mental toll: How air, water and climate change shape our mental health," with funds from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.
Follow the fallout from this investigation on Twitter at the hashtag: #EHNmentalhealth
Struggling with your mental health? Want to take action against pollution and climate change? Check out our solutions guide.