• Protecting the Environment, Our Health

    "The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share." -- Lady Bird Johnson

    Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day, which was established by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., and his co-chair, Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Calif., and first held on April 22, 1970.  

    42903361 - man holding an earth globe in his hands.

    Nelson and McCloskey were motivated by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Their decision to establish a day devoted to the preservation of the world's natural resources and the environment was, as you can imagine, met with some skepticism. However, by 1990, Earth Day had gone global with more than 141 countries participating. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

    The AAFP was an early leader on the environment and the health issue associated with climate change. In 1969, the AAFP Congress of Delegates approved a policy on Climate Change and Air Pollution. That policy states, "In recognition of the numerous and serious adverse health consequences resulting from pollution, greenhouse emissions from human activities, climate change, and ozone layer depletion, the AAFP recommends strong action on all public and private levels to limit and correct the pollution of our land, atmosphere and water."

    The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded that "addressing climate change is the greatest public health opportunity of the 21st century, and failure to adequately address it could undo most of the progress in global health over the past century." Clearly, that is a big statement, and the conclusion is certainly subject to debate. However, it is well established that the environment in which individuals live and work have an impact on their health.

    The linkage between environment and health has driven many public health advocacy efforts during the past century. Physicians have long been leaders in advocacy efforts to enact environmental regulations, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Clean Air Act of 1970. Family physicians, due to their position at the frontlines of health care delivery and their unique role in public health, are positioned to identify environmental health concerns and promote policy changes on a community, regional and national level. The role of family medicine in these efforts is outlined in an AAFP policy on Environmental Concerns in Public Health that states, "primary care physicians often are among the first to identify indicators that may suggest a link between a specific exposure and a community health risk. As such, family physicians are uniquely qualified to serve as front-line guardians and educators of public health concerns for their patients."

    We saw the important role of family physicians as advocates and voices for change recently in Michigan, where many family physicians and the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians fought for new laws and regulations because of the Flint water crisis. There is much work to be done in Flint and other communities, but it was the voices of family physicians and other physicians that set in motion changes to improve the lives of those in Flint and surrounding communities.

    Former AAFP Board member Matthew Burke, M.D., wrote an excellent Leaders Voices Blog post on the relationship between climate change and health last year. Burke is an emerging national leader on environment and health, and his articulation of the importance of these issues is far better than mine.

    In addition to our work at the AAFP, we also have engaged with other physician and health care organizations on this important work through the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The Consortium, led by family physician Mona Sarfaty, M.D., M.P.H., was formed in 2016, and its membership consists of medical and other health care associations representing more than 500,000 health care professionals. The AAFP, along with the AMA, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and others are all active members of the Consortium.

    The Consortium was formed around a consensus statement that reads: "Our organizations are committed to working with officials at all levels to reduce emissions of heat-trapping pollution, and to work with health agencies to promote research on effective interventions and to strengthen the public health infrastructure with the aim of protecting human health from climate change."

    In March 2017, the Consortium published a report, Medical Alert! Climate Change is Hurting our Health. The report was designed to raise awareness and draw attention to the health consequences of changes to our environment. Last week, the Consortium held its annual meeting and advocacy day in Washington, D.C. If you are interested in working with the Consortium on an individual level, you can sign up to become an advocate regarding climate change and health.

    Learn more about the AAFP's work on environmental health and climate change and our national leadership on these issues. You also can utilize AAFP resources at FamilyDoctor.org,  and the EPA has several good resources as well.


    Stephanie Quinn, AAFP Senior Vice President of Advocacy, Practice Advancement and Policy.  Read author bio »


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