The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said emergencies such as the lead contamination in Flint, Mich., underscore the need to build stronger relationships between environmental protectionists and public health stakeholders.
Speaking with medical students in Chicago, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called for more healthcare providers to raise awareness about the effect pollution has on health.
McCarthy said that growing environmental challenges are not getting enough attention or funding and that's endangering the health of the nation's poorest communities.
“I only need to say Flint to make the case that if this doesn't work right then people are exposed,” McCarthy said. “I think environmental exposures have taken a much lower level of attention in the medical community than they should be having.”
Treating wastewater is an example of an area in which more research is needed. McCarthy said the technology to treat wastewater is so old that it cannot effectively eliminate some of the newer chemicals being deposited by pharmaceuticals, hormones, pesticides and industrial waste.
“We need to generate momentum that allows you to go back and work on an individual basis while EPA addresses some of these large community challenges,” McCarthy told the students. “If we work together, I think we will have more success.”
Climate change is another environmental challenge with direct public health implications. President Barack Obama says the state of the environment exacerbates such chronic conditions as asthma and heart disease.
“America's public health is deeply tied to the health of our environment,” Obama said in a declaration for Public Health Week made last April. “In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting these individuals and many other vulnerable populations at greater risk of landing in the hospital.”
McCarthy urged medical schools to take a more active role in training students on environmental exposures and their effect on health.
“If all you're doing is treating on an individual basis and failing to understand some of the causes for those individual care challenges, then we're missing opportunities from a policy and regulatory level to get at some of the larger causes of these problems,” McCarthy said.