Network Updates / Global / 2022-10-10

Health workers step up:
advocating for clean air

Clean air policy improves health outcomes.

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Physicians and health sector professionals have a key role to play in advocating for clean air standards. Medical staff are on the front lines in observing the health impacts of air pollution. They have stepped into advocacy roles to drive policy changes for improving air quality.

Healthcare workers can participate in initiatives where they work directly with governmental offices. Clinicians are helping testify about the impacts of air pollution on patient health and advocating for clean air policies. They advise representatives on the health impacts and policy recommendations that will support healthy air standards.

The health sector is a key driver in improving air quality. Clean air is essential for health as many doctors and health professionals already realize. Health workers actively contribute to improving air quality both directly through updates to medical facilities, increasing patient education, and through policy advocacy.


Air quality impacts health

Air pollution harms human health. Climate change and air quality have closely related solutions. Many of the short term air quality improvements will also improve climate outcomes. Climate change has severe health impacts for all humans, globally. It damages human health and is set to be the defining public health crisis of our generation. Climate change is severely damaging human health impacting clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply, and safe shelter.  The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion per year by 2030. The health impacts of climate change and air quality are closely interrelated.  Reducing short-lived climate pollutants is a quick way to improve local air quality that improves climate outcomes. Organizations providing policy suggestions are focused on short-term air quality improvements that immediately improve health outcomes.

Government action

Governments are working to both reduce the severity of the health impacts and adapt to the health harms that are already occurring. Governments need to work together to improve air quality. These policy decisions can be supported by people in many sectors, including health professionals. Countries are coming together to commit to building climate-resilient and sustainable health systems through the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health. Health professionals are drivers in supporting these policy decisions.

A growing number of governments are committed to developing climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems, in response to growing evidence of the impact of climate change on people’s health.


Policy recommendations

Policy recommendations include transitions away from combustion and fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food and energy-use choices can result in improved health, particularly through reduced air pollution. The goal is to phase out polluting energy systems. Transitions to active and public transportation can both lower carbon emissions and cut the burden of household and ambient air pollution.


Training medical staff as advocates for clean air

In Ghana, a World Health Organization program led by Samatha Pegoraro just successfully ran a pilot program to train health professionals as advocates for clean air standards. They are in the process of developing this pilot program into a larger, global educational program. This successful pilot program is expected to expand into a global program in 2023. Learning goals for the materials include teaching the participants in recognizing the scientific evidence behind air pollution and health issues, including specific knowledge of pathogenetic mechanisms through which air pollutants undermine people’s health. The health professionals learned to recognize the health benefit of both ambient and household air pollution interventions at the population, community, and individual levels with particular attention to developing a clinical approach to air pollution.

The decarbonization of medical practices

In addition to government policy-related advocacy. The medical field is actively working to decarbonize its own sector’s impact as well. The health sector strives to be a societal leader in protecting public and planetary health from climate change by adapting its own practices. There are current discussions on how to accomplish that both globally and in low and middle-income countries. Since health facilities are located in areas at risk of disasters, these updates improve regional resilience for providing reliable medical services during disasters.


Doctors can advocate for clean air policies

There are many things that doctors can do to advocate for climate and health improvements. Physicians can participate in programs such as the Medical Society on Climate and Health, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, the Global Climate and Health AllianceClim-HEALTH, and Doctors for the Environment Australia. Healthcare workers are advocating through these organizations as well as their professional organizations for stricter air quality standards and testifying on how the impacts of climate change and poor air quality are harming their patients now. Programs like Health Voices for Climate Action provide platforms for healthcare professionals to speak up directly. Clinicians and health professionals can join in existing efforts by contacting organizations and choosing roles in those efforts that align with their individual interests and capacities.