Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Communications Coordinator
Human health and the health of the planet are inseparable. A constantly interacting cycle, our destruction and waste is stressing Mother Earth’s vital organs to the point of collapse, which in turn is causing epidemics of pollution and disaster related health problems in our communities.
Children, elders, and women are impacted with disproportionate severity – and low-income communities are often marginalized and placed directly in the path of toxic sites and extreme weather events. The topic of health and climate thus emerges as both an existential crisis, and as a question of deep social and environmental injustice.
On June 23, 2015 women from across the United States joined together to participate in the first day of ‘Health and Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’, an online education and advocacy training presented as part of the WECAN International U.S Women’s Climate Justice Initiative. Day one of the training featured Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, M.D. , Pramilla Malick, and Cherri Foytlin.
Osprey Orielle Lake, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN International) opened the call and passed the floor to Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, M.D. of the Institute for Health & the Environment.
Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient
Shelia presented a broad overview of the myriad of health impacts emerging as a consequence of accelerating climate disruption. She began with a discussion of air pollution, which is characterized by ground level ozone, smog, and particulate matter accumulation. She cited health impacts including increases in asthma, allergies, cardiac and pulmonary disease, lung and heart related hospitalizations, diminished lung function, and premature deaths.
She also spoke about heat waves as a major climate related health concern, drawing attention to devastating cases emerging in Pakistan and India in recent weeks. May and June 2015 brought temperatures of 113- 119 degrees F to India, killing more than 2,500 people as of June 5th. On June 19, days before the training, extreme temperatures in Pakistan killed more than 260 people in just a few days.
Health impacts from heat waves include dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion, as well as increased mortality rates and exacerbated heart problems. Urban dwellers experience even higher temperatures as a result of the ‘heat island’ effect – and children and the elderly are most vulnerable.
Extreme heat goes hand in hand with drought conditions, which stresses plant and animal communities and can lead to parched, failing food systems. The Western U.S has been experiencing intensifying impacts over the last decade– and at the global level, failing crops mean malnutrition, starvation, job and income loss, shortened life expectancy, compromised immune systems, and increased disease vulnerability.
Wildfires are another drought-related concern with direct impacts on air quality and heart and lung disease. A map generated on June 22, 2015 revealed twenty-four major fires burning in the US – thirteen of them in Alaska. As of June 28 there were at least 319 large and small fires burning in the state, a strikingly clear example of the wildly off-balance world we are faced with.
Sheila discussed floods and hurricanes next, citing impacts ranging from bodily injuries, acute illness and deaths, to increases in homeless populations and sickness from contaminated water and food sources. Changes in the range and characteristics of infectious vectors is another very real climate impact, with diseases like West Nile, Lyme disease, Dengue, Malaria, and Chikungunya all shifting and spreading.
Sheila’s presentation circled back to impacts on food systems as a key human health concern. She explained how the vitality and diversity of oceans and freshwater bodies are collapsing due to pollution, rising temperatures, and melt-water, and spelled out what this means for the wellbeing of the worlds waters and human health and nutrition.
Sheila concluded with comments on the psychological health impacts of floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, which can include Autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, depression, anger, family conflict and separation, and even civil conflict and war. Reflecting on these deep climate impacts with Sheila was an enlightening and eye-opening experience.
Pramilla Malick of Protect Orange County and Stop the Minisink Compressor Station spoke next. Pramilla is a journalist, blogger, mother, and grassroots community organizer who has been working ceaselessly to expose and prevent the damages caused by fracking and gas infrastructure in her community in upstate New York.
Pramilla started by noting the painful irony of our situation. Faced with depleted resources and planetary stress, we have decided to use even more destructive techniques to unearth fossil fuels. She explained how these more violent forms of extraction are driving the health of the Earth and our communities along a parallel trajectory – towards more deadly and extreme impacts.
For the past two years her community has been living with a compressor station that pushes fracked natural gas along a large pipeline. According to Pramilla, compressor and metering stations are needed every 10 miles along many pipelines, placing millions of US residents in close proximity to dangerous, and even deadly infrastructure.
Pramilla quickly became aware that radioactive gas and liquid was seeping into the soil and being released into the air, and that at least 26 toxic chemicals (many known carcinogens) were being pumped through and around her community. As soon as she understood the dire implications of the compressor station, she began collecting testimony’s from neighbors and photographing the health impacts appearing among residents.
Pramilla documented rashes and skin irritations, nose bleeds, reparatory illness, nausea, vomiting, swollen joints, breathing difficulties, abdominal pain, organ damage, and neurological symptoms, all radiating out up to 150 miles from the station.
Reaffirming Shiela’s comments on young peoples heightened vulnerability, Pramilla drew attention to the fact that these exposures impact not just children’s immediate wellbeing, but also their long-term health and development.
Mid-way through her presentation, Pramilla took our breath away with a shocking video of the compressor station in her community. At first nothing was visible, but when an infrared camera was switched on a massive plume of emissions became visible, rising up from the compressor like an uncontrollable fire.
She expressed deep concerned about the toxins and carcinogens that her community is breathing in directly, but also about the effects of bioaccumulation in soil and dairy products, which make up a large portion of the local economy and are distributed across the US.
Pramilla and allies also connected the dots between the toxins and the inhibition of agricultural crops, and observed that the constant noise from the station was driving away bats and insects central to pest control and natural ecosystem balance. Soon people in Pramilla’s town began packing up and walking away from their homes – a forced migration that often only the better-off can afford.
On the subject of justice, Pramilla reminded us, “We are all connected. We are connected by the pipelines that are poisoning us. We are connected by our water. We are connected by our air.”
She concluded with powerful comments on the fracking and natural gas industries, which are being promoted by the US government as a type of positive transition fuel. These are unacceptable false solutions she explained,
“We have to choose a different course. We cannot trade one poison for another…the system we have in place is simply not sustainable. It is acting on the bodies of our children as we speak. We as mothers must come together, nothing is more important than the health of our children.”
Cherri Foytlin joined the call as the third and final presenter of day one. Cherri is a mother of six living in Southern Louisiana. She hails from the Dene Nation, and is a photographer, speaker, Idle No More Gulf Coast member, and author of Spill It! The Truth about the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Explosion. Cherri spoke with training participants on health and climate impacts in her Gulf Coast home-region, where there have been five major hurricanes in the last five years.
The area is a center of industry, with mega-ports and refineries lying directly in the path of extreme weather events. Major oil spills have poisoned the ocean waters and inland aquifers, exacerbating the health and environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina and Rita as oil and chemical dispersants washed back onto the land and into peoples homes. Asthma, pneumonia, respiratory issues, and cancer have all been documented in people involved in Katrina cleanup efforts, and the true reach of the oil spill and hurricanes health impacts are only beginning to be revealed.
Despite the challenging conditions Cherri is facing in her community, her presentation was filled with a wealth of positive, uplifting insight into how we can all take action to engage with issues health and climate change.
She explained that we must not give up hope and should boldly “sound the alarm”- getting out on the street to talk with our friends and neighbors and help them see the connection between climate change, health, pollution and fossil fuel infrastructure. She asserted that we must continue to demand strong, meaningful action from public officials, but that we also must realize that real change happens only when people stand up, act, and push governments to step up to the plate as leaders.
Cherri commented on the need to strengthen our health systems, assess vulnerabilities, and take action to insure that health professionals have the training to deal with toxic exposure and climate disasters.
She also suggested policy action to require developers to prove how they will protect human and environmental health- with clear guidelines for shutting down projects if and when they cannot provide this evidence. Touching on an absolutely vital theme, Cherri declared that we must end the fossil fuel era and challenge “an archaic industry that is feeding on our health” and the health of the Earth as a whole.
Cherri also explained that working to actively build another vision is of the upmost importance, suggesting action to get renewable energy in homes and show people that a clean economy can support jobs and economic health. Thus far, her community has put solar panels on 26 homes, focusing on the elderly and low-income families first.
We were inspired by, and in full agreement with Cherri’s statements about the need to create a new culture and challenge the idea that our mission in life is to consume. She called for the re-building of a culture that respects the planet, sees reducing emissions as a source of great pride, and lifts up the stories of those who are on the frontlines of impacts and solutions.
During the Q & A session, presenters and participants reflected more on ways to get involved with critical health and climate issues.
Pramilla emphasized support for the transition to 100% renewable energy, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and action to expose the fact that natural gas and fracking are not “bridge fuels”, but rather “bridges to catastrophe”.
“As mothers, we must tell policymakers that the health of our children comes first, and that clean air and water is a fundamental human right that cannot be compromised in any shape or form,” she explained.
Sheila shared hopeful information about ongoing work with the American Medical Association to call for legislation that requires comprehensive health impact assessments of existing and proposed infrastructure projects. Cherri asked participants to join her in speaking out about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, building awareness and framing it as the climate and health disaster that it was.
Cherri provided a powerful statement to close the session,
“Inaction in the face of climate change and injustice is an act of violence towards our women and children and future generations. But the opposite of that, if you take that backwards, is that action for climate justice for all of us is an act of love. That is the most important thing because that is how we win… our love for eachother will win this, we can do this.”
Check back soon for a recap of day two of the ‘Health & Climate Change: What Is At Stake, What Can Be Done?’ training.
You can join our next training, ‘Women on the Frontlines of Climate Change: Resistance & Solutions’ on Wednesday, July 8. Click here for details.
Washington Post-‘Over 300 Wildfires are Burning in Alaska Right Now. That’s an Even Bigger Problem than it Sounds’ US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health- ‘Climate Change and Infectious Diseases in North America: The Road Ahead’