“The crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
— Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 1” (1787)
President Trump and his administration have unequivocally signaled a significant change in our country’s approach to the environment, one that downplays the risk of global climate change and threatens to dismantle environmental safeguards in our country. In response, all of us must consider the consequences of changes to the longstanding and widely supported environmental protections now in place in the United States of America. It’s an important subject — the outcome of the administration’s changes will affect the health of millions of people in the US and billions around the globe.
The health of the environment determines human health. The crowding and squalor of medieval cities, for instance, spurred the Black Death, which claimed the lives of about 60 percent of people living in Europe. The Great London Smog in the 1950s killed thousands of people in just one five-day period. Closer to home and the present, lead poisoning of children has been the longest-standing health epidemic in the United States. Lead in gasoline and paint has damaged the brains of millions of children since the 1920s. Fortunately, bans on leaded gas and lead paint have dramatically reduced the harms, although we still have much to do — as the Flint water crisis reminds us.
Since the advent of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s, human health has reaped substantial benefits from actions that have prevented exposure to both outdoor and indoor pollutants. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the passage of federal laws such as the Clean Air Act in 1963 and the Clean Water Act in 1972, and thousands of other steps since then have saved millions of lives and improved or lengthened millions more.
Actions to protect the environment — and thus our health — are never perfect and will always be considered by some as having gone too far and by others as not going far enough. We recognize that environmental issues can spark contentious debates. But contentious debates are a hallmark of our democracy. We must remain vigilant, however, against those who, for potential financial gain, create the impression of uncertainty through manufactured doubt. Discussions about the environment must continue, but they must continue based on scientific facts if we are to advance the safeguards that secure critical protections for the environment.
All of us face a choice. The next few years represent an inflection point for the environment, and for our health. We can stand by complacently as the environmental health accomplishments of the past 50 years come under attack and stagnate — or worse. Or we can strive for necessary protection of the environment. What we do now will determine our collective health for generations.
In the spirit of “The Federalist,” a series of articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the United States Constitution, we propose a national conversation about the links between environmental health and human health. To this end, we have begun inviting prominent environmental health scientists to contribute papers on different environmental health topics. We will require that the authors write fact-based, jargon-free articles that speak to the average American. We will submit these to media outlets around the country, and compile them on a central website at EnvironmentalistPapers.org.
This series will aim to demonstrate that human health is inextricably bound to the environment we inhabit. It will vigorously defend strategies designed to protect the environment and our health. And it will make the case that, while much has been accomplished, the gains that have been made over the last 50 years can be dismantled and reversed more quickly than might be imagined and with devastating consequences.
The bonds that tie the environment to human health transcend political and geographic boundaries. We believe that all Americans should be active participants in the looming decisions to be made about the environment, and hope that the information in this series of articles will provide a foundation for decision-making.
The future of the environment, and our health, depends on the decisions our elected officials are about to make. It is our obligation as citizens to make sure our voices are heard so those decisions reflect the will of the people. A phrase that Alexander Hamilton used in “The Federalist No. 1” is as appropriate today as it was then: “We put you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to our collective welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth.”
Joseph G. Allen, DSc, is an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Ari Bernstein, MD, is a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and associate director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment. Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, is professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, director of UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, and associate editor of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.