This post is by Larissa Lockwood, director of clean air, and Andrew Pendleton, director of strategy and advocacy, at Global Action Plan.
As the old adage goes, ‘prevention is better than cure’. In the past few decades, prevention as a political philosophy has gone in and out of fashion. In recent years, environmental issues have reached crisis point and the focus has slipped even further from upstream to downstream action, or ‘sticking plaster’ policy. For example, we’ve seen public health budgets slashed and an increasingly overloaded NHS left to mop up the consequences.
But there is a resurgence of interest in the ‘preventative state’, recognising that societal factors influence health and how health inequalities determine lifelong outcomes for people and the nation. The first report from IPPR’s new Commission on Health and Prosperity links health inequalities with poorer economic outcomes. And there is the Health Equals coalition campaign and the Demos report on rebuilding our local, social and civic foundations.
This flurry of activity on the wider determinants of health shows two things. First that, in light of the NHS crisis, there is a need to focus on prevention to make care and cure more viable. The second is that the environment as a health determinant is almost entirely absent from the conversation.
The quality of the air we breathe, our water sources and soils, access to nature, and the dire threats of climate change are all not only critical issues for the future of the environment and biodiversity, they also affect human health. They have a profound impact on social and economic outcomes, and they are closely linked to other health determinants, such as income, housing and access to secure work. It is time policy makers did more to recognise the fundamental role our environment has in every aspect of our lives and for the environmental sector to make these connections more explicit.
Health and environment are central voter concerns
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social health and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. A healthier environment and more abundant nature are important to all three of these dimensions. For instance, pollution and a lack of access to green space affect physical health, but they can equally harm our brains and mental health, and reduce our social health by limiting opportunities for collective activity.
Most nature and conservation groups understand this and are engaged with initiatives such as green prescribing but, at a time of crisis in the NHS and public services, we should take a more holistic, upstream view of the environmental determinants of health. Poor housing, for instance, is linked because it can lack decent insulation and ventilation; this makes it more expensive to live in and harms physical health through the effects from cold, bad air, overheating and mould. And areas of poor quality housing also often lack rich and biodiverse local natural spaces.
As the general election approaches, in which health, the public realm and the role of the state will be salient issues for voters, Global Action Plan will be exploring the intersections of human and planetary health, starting with clean air.
Health is a big reason to look after our environment
If we miss this chance to emphasise the environmental impacts on public health – and fail to convince those championing prevention that ecology is a vital factor – then we won’t inspire decision makers acting on this reason to stop harm to nature, climate change and pollution.
From our experience as environmental campaigners for 30 years, we get the most traction when we talk to the public about the environment as a health issue. It’s time to make the connections much clearer and to shift the narrative from the environment for its own sake, to the environment for the sake of our health and wellbeing.
Clean Air Day is on 15 June. This is a moment to get friends, family and colleagues talking about air pollution, and telling local decision makers what they think should happen to improve air quality in our local neighbourhoods. It is, of course, just one moment, but it’s time to recognise that clean air is essential to good health, and to start reframing our story.
To mark this year’s Clean Air Day, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Air Pollution is co-hosting a panel event with Global Action Plan and Alzheimer’s Research UK to explore the latest evidence linking air pollution to mental health and brain conditions. The is being held on 15 June, 10.30-11.30am. Register to attend