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The Inderdependance Of Environmental Issues And Public Health

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In the US conversation about environmental justice began long ago, and took varied forms and focuses. One commentary and illustration many of us enjoyed was Captain Planet. Captain Planet was a fictional character in the US media during the early 90’s that illustrated to a younger population the effects of environment issues. Although, Captain Planet was fictional animation, it did get one thing correct, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the problem and solution of environmental issues. Public Health practice and research now add to this conversation showing us through varied health data that environmental justice is directly tied to advancing health equity, and that environmental issues affect our health. Underserved communities are the most impacted by environmental issues resulting from low wage employment, lack of access to health enhancing resources, and lack of standardization among local, state and federal governments. In the United States, all over the world low wage labor is the most hazardous to your health. Agricultural work is an important illustrator of how environmental issues affects the health of workers, is undercompensated, but agricultural work is detrimental to our communities. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are about eight hundred thousand agricultural workers, but also report that there is an increased margin of error for this type of field.

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Although agricultural workers make up about one million workers in this country, data about the families of agricultural workers in not concrete. Agricultural workers are at risk for various health hazards that vary by type of crop industry they work in. Workers that pick avocados not only are exposed to pesticides, but also are at increased risks of falling from heights of up to forty feet carrying bags that can weigh a minimum of eighty pounds. Workers that pick crops like asparagus and strawberries must stay low to the ground doing things like bending over or kneeling for long periods of time. Although there are many examples that exemplify work related health hazards, one of the most dangerous ones is exposure to pesticides. Pesticide exposure most directly affects agriculture workers and their families, including their children.

Through Public Health research there have been many tools created to measure exposure levels, and current work focuses on measuring the effects of pesticide exposure. For example, Butler et al. (2016), looked at pesticide exposure in Latino Children in the Orchard Community and studied the neurobehavioral performance over a longer period, found no significant findings regarding neurobehavioral performance, this study did confirm that children of farmworkers are exposed to pesticides. Exposure levels were analyzed through dust collection which produced data on percentage amount detected in the home. What was most surprising about the findings by Butler et al, is that among that exposure was these children were exposed to OP’s phased out by the EPA.

This finding signals that stronger enforcement around pesticide use is required. Unlike the discussion of the effects of environmental issues to farmworkers and their families, which has become undisputable, in our society environmental issues are still a pointed discussion, partly because of disbelief of issues like global warming. Exploring this even further, there is a greater opportunity to examine how these issues affect our day to day, and the effects on health promoting individual behaviors. None of us can dispute the increased levels of heat that our communities are experiencing, as we have seen communities employ efforts to fill a gap for an increased need of safety during higher levels of heat. Some of the communities most impacted by increased levels of heat are our elderly population, low wage workers, and low income communities, all in many of the same ways. Our elderly population is a big part of our low-income population that are living on fixed incomes and do not have the resources to install appropriate cooling systems. Populations who do not have access to an air-conditioned car or are unable to afford public transportation experience high levels of heat while commuting, leading to increased heat related illnesses. School children and their families commute from school at some of the hottest times of the day.

Thinking back to agricultural workers some if not most of their work is done being exposed to the sun and heat for long periods of time. Commuting and working are not optional for low income communities, but activities that are health promoting and optional are also impacted by increased levels of heat. Increased levels of heat limits access to already reduced resources. For example, reduced amount of time to cooler temperatures that are safe enough for people to do physical activity deters people from engaging in more physical activity. Around the same lines if folks are needing to walk in the evening when it is cooler, but are not in communities that are well lit and provide more safety, this too also deters engagement in health promoting behaviors. Tools like Pokémon Go can be used to track a variety of data set, which can include what times individuals chose to engage in physical activity. As more tools are developed to promote these types of behaviors like Pokémon Go, their efficacy will be affected by environmental issues like the one noted above.

As shared previously, there is not consensus among environmental issues. This is something that can be proven just by looking at local, state and federal governments of the United States. California is the state known for their stance and efforts to reduce environmental issues, but going across state lines there is a great contrast in efforts related to reduction of environmental issues. Keeping with the examples communities shared above underserved communities and agricultural workers are affected by the lack of standardization of laws. Lack of standardization in this arena throughout all the levels of government could signal resources devoted to the enforcement of the reduction of practices that reduce environmental issues. Agricultural workers are affected by this at an increased rate. Part of the nature of agricultural work is to follow the crops, meaning that some places of employment, and states are more harmful to work in for the workers.

As discussed by Schneider in her look at clean environments, regulation has historically been a challenge because of the increased production rates of toxic chemicals, and lack of resources allocated for research and enforcement in this area. Schneider calls out that the mechanism of detecting toxic substances for a long time had been workers being exposed and suffering from the effect, and because regulations remain politically controversial this compounds the intricacies to make movement toward environmental justice that we know to also be working toward health equity. As public health works to combat diseases like obesity, and other chronic disease, technology is something we look to, and one common thread throughout the discussion not mentioned technology. For agricultural work, pesticide chemicals and equipment used were technologies that advanced the field but brought detrimental health effects to workers. Increased heat is a result of the exponential pollution stemming from the advancement of all technologies. An example of a technology that has become a great resource for public health is smart phones.

Smart phones and its applications have produced incredible tools to combat chronic diseases, for example Pokémon Go which promotes walking, application for tracking an individuals’ sugar levels, and more. Statista reports that as of the first quarter Apple reported a little over 47 thousand health related application. Health data is at our fingertips more than ever before. As cell phone use is more embedded into daily life studies are beginning to uncover results on a wide array of health effects both positive and negative on health, especially children’s health. As smart phone use grows, this has made phones themselves a more disposable technology in our society, resulting in increased rates of production, increased need for plastics and other contaminants. This technology can later be traced back to landfills, like many other health enhancing tools contributing to environmental issues. Understanding the intricacy of technology, and its uses to combat diseases, and challenges researchers and practitioners to responsibly use technology to inform and advance this field. Researchers keep finding scientific evidence that confirms environmental issues are only going to continue to increase due to increased occurrences like natural disasters, among others.

The field of public health is often looked to resolve health related issues stemming from environmental health issues. There is a long history of collaboration between both the public health sector and the environmental sector, but both have historically responded with intervention of issues. There are many examples of how existing community tools and methods that both address environmental issues and public health issues have been changing both fields, but there is still a need for expansion of these types of efforts. As environmental issues keep growing communities that are underserved will increasingly continue to be the communities impacted at higher rate. Environmental issues affect employment, community resources or lack of, all of which affect individual and community health. Public Health’s Captain Planet is an increased understanding of the intersectionality the both fields and their respective evolution.

11 February 2020

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