America Matters Environmental Health Issues

By Kylla Benes

In the late 1800’s Ellen Swallow Richards, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s first female student and woman instructor, studied how school conditions, public water supply contamination, and food fraud were directly related to instances of illness and death in the Boston-area. As a scientist, Richards was one of the very first Americans to link ecology and environmental conditions to human health. As an advocate, Richards worked tirelessly to make sure government and citizens alike knew these connections, and pushed for policies and programs to improve public health.

For decades to come, despite these early warnings and some regulation, government and businesses continued polluting America’s air, water, and land more or less indiscriminately and unchecked. But in 1962 Rachel Carson brought mass attention, once again, to the link between environmental health and human health. Carson’s book Silent Spring connected the use of synthetic pesticides to die-off of birds as well as birth defects and cancer in humans. These findings generated great public concern and ushered a new era in the conservation movement. Outcry and advocacy from Americans over these environmental health issues lead to a ban on DDT (a synthetic organic compound used as an insecticide) use and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under then Republican President, Richard Nixon.

It is now very clear that a healthy, fully functioning natural environment is crucial to American’s way of life. Yet today, even though we have the EPA, the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health*, and abundant knowledge of the effects of environmental quality on human health, we continue to see reports of water contamination, pesticide use, oil spills, and other environmental quality issues that are directly linked to human illness and economic hardship. Sometimes these incidents are due to human error but all too often they are born of greed and laziness.

Many programs administered by the EPA and other agencies are a direct response to these environmental and human health issues. While the regulations and permitting processes of these agencies sometimes seem burdensome, especially to businesses, it is important to keep in mind that they have been designed with the goal of protecting  the health of Americans and natural resources for generations to come. There is however, always room for improvement and citizens, government, and businesses should work together to solve these problems that are so important to America’s vitality and well-being.
*Note at the time of writing and publication of this post, the CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking Network Data were not accessible.