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Vital Stories

Environmental Health: The Three Headlines We’d Like To See in 2021

Vital Strategies

Current media coverage fails to acknowledge lead paint, indoor air pollution and palm oil production as major contributors to poor health 

Each day we check our phones, open our newspapers, turn on our televisions or knock on our neighbor’s door to catch up on the daily news. Often, we’re inundated with top stories that discuss the day’s public health concerns and crises—from tobacco consumption to the COVID-19 pandemic—but rarely does the media dive into the root causes of poor health.  

“Headlines We’d Like To See,” a blog series by Vital Strategies, serves as a platform to help readers understand the root causes of poor health outcomes and the solutions that are available to prevent and address today’s leading public health challenges. It reflects our vision for a bolder, better and more equitable approach to health where everyone, everywhere, is protected. 

For years, harrowing news on our planet and environment, such as rising temperatures and loss of biodiversity, have filled our screens and newspapers. Just this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “a code red for humanity.” The past year has been especially challenging for the environment: while positive improvements including reduced air pollution was welcome due to reduced traffic and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, COVID-19 has weakened environmental regulations on emissions standards and toxic substances in some countries, including the United States. 

Many global actors and leaders are taking a stand on rising environmental concerns. But there is still much work to be done, and time is running out for our planet and communities. Public health partners, leaders and organizations can play a key role in finding innovative solutions to today’s leading environmental issues, by advocating for effective policies, building research and data capacities, and encouraging public awareness and action. At Vital Strategies, we’re working with governments, policymakers, scientists and the public to build a world where health threats are mitigated or eliminated.  

Here are the leading headlines in environmental health that we’d like to see: 

Headline We’d Like to See #1: Getting the Lead Out: Governments on Track to Eliminate Lead Paint Globally 

Approximately one in three children have blood lead levels that are higher than deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Despite clear evidence of harm, most countries do not sufficiently monitor or regulate lead to prevent widespread exposure. Only 39% of all countries have legally binding limits on the production, import and sale of one of the most common sources of lead poisoning—lead-based paint. 

Lead poisoning is a silent public health crisis, ignored by many but harmful to the millions of children who are suffering from its consequences.

Lead poisoning is a silent public health crisis, ignored by many but harmful to the millions of children who are suffering from its consequences. Eliminating lead paint by instituting a ban on production and manufacturing would have a significant and immediate public health impact—specifically on the lives of children—and would produce several economic and social benefits for countries. Right now, lead exposure is increasing health care costs, productivity losses and intellectual disability with resource-constrained countries bearing most of the economic burden; a loss of IQ translates into an estimated loss of $134.7 billion in Africa. Eliminating lead paint is a bold and necessary investment in children and economies around the world.  

While preventive measures like banning lead paint are critical, equally as important are treatment and care for people already exposed to lead. Many countries don’t have the tools to provide the best treatment options. Clinical care guidance based on individual risk and circumstances can help medical professionals provide effective care.  

Our responsibility as a global community is clear: we need to address lead poisoning through proven solutions like banning lead paint. By doing so we can ensure that children around the world grow up in safe environments that protect their development, health and well-being and enable them to live up to their full potential. 

Headline We’d Like to See #2: Clean Air, Blue Skies for All: India’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Calls Out Urgent Need to Ensure Clean Household Energy for Clean Air 

Household air pollution, resulting from cooking, heating or burning solid fuels like crop waste and coal, disproportionately affects women and children in resource-constrained countries and is responsible for approximately 2.3 million deaths annually. South Asia is just one region significantly affected: about 60% of South Asian households use solid fuels, and in India, 607,000 deaths were caused by household air pollution from solid fuels in 2019. About half of the world’s population—4 billion people—are living without access to clean and safe ways of cooking, ultimately leading to adverse health outcomes.  

Global leaders, such as India’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, can lead the way forward to make the transition to clean energy for millions of families. India can increase access and affordability to cleaner cooking fuels—biogas, liquified petroleum gas, electricity and natural gas. These fuels can reduce air pollution emissions dramatically.  

Cleaner air will have a tremendous effect on the lives of women in India, who spend up to 374 hours every year just collecting firewood.

Cleaner air will have a tremendous effect on the lives of women in India, who spend up to 374 hours every year just collecting firewood. Access to cleaner fuel can give women the time to participate in other activities, including the labor force, ultimately addressing gender disparities as well as protecting many from health issues including increased risks during pregnancy. Clean household energy is an equity issue that has far-reaching implications. Investment in clean energy is critical and can have an immediate effect on women—allowing them to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives. 

The United Nations SDG 7 calls for universal access to clean fuels and technologies by 2030, but we are not on track to meet the 2030 goal. However, the solutions are there: when governments, policymakers and civil society work together, clean household energy can be the standard for countries around the world. In Nepal, the government is working to provide electricity access across the country by 2022-2023, transitioning citizens to electric cooking. India can join the movement—universal clean household energy has the potential to reduce the national average of PM2.5 (the most serious air pollutant) average to India’s standard, accelerating clean air action and protecting millions of families.  

Headline We’d Like to See #3: How Can We Lower Emissions? Regulate Unsustainable Palm Oil Production  

A lesser-known environmental concern, palm oil, is increasing our carbon footprint and contributing to our planet’s rising temperatures and climate change. Grown from the oil palm plant, palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil that is used in everything from biofuel to cosmetics to snack foods. Take a walk to your kitchen or bathroom cabinet and you can find palm oil in almost all the products you use and consume. While palm oil is a great inexpensive option for several products, palm oil production drastically increases carbon emissions. To meet rising global demand, rainforests on peatlands are often burned to make room for palm oil production, releasing tremendous quantities of harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  

Today’s headlines show us that palm oil production is contributing to climate change and leading to permanent damage for animals and indigenous communities. At a time when the global community is  out of time to meet the 1.5°C global temperature target, our planet does not have the luxury of increasing carbon emissions, no matter the use.  

At a time when the global community is  out of time to meet the 1.5°C global temperature target, our planet does not have the luxury of increasing carbon emissions, no matter the use.  

What steps can be taken to address this environmental scourge? Activists and local organizations are shedding light on palm oil production. Calls for boycotting companies and products that use palm oil are necessary but not enough. Companies working in the palm oil business need to make sure raw materials production does not lead to deforestation or the extinction and loss of animals, plants and communities. Global and national legislation regulating and enforcing palm oil production is key. Just recently, Sri Lanka banned all imports of palm oil and ordered palm oil-producing companies to replace agricultural lands with more environmentally friendly crops. Other efforts to curtail palm oil emissions include an initiative, Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance or LEAF, announced during U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate summit this year. The initiative aims to protect rainforests by creating a marketplace where governments and the private sector provide financial support to tropical and subtropical countries to reduce emissions from deforestation. This is especially encouraging and attractive to countries that fear losing economic activity by regulating palm oil production.  

Climate policies are health policies. Palm oil production can be regulated through political will and corporate regulation. Leaders may be tempted to see the regulation of palm oil as an impediment to economic growth. But we disagree. When health, environmental and other societal costs of air, water and climate pollutants are taken into accountregulation is shown to be overwhelmingly cost-effective. 

There is an urgent need to protect our planet and people from environmental disasters and adverse health outcomes. Through partnerships and action on the global and local level, we can make the headlines we’d like to see in environmental health a reality, and help protect the planet for ourselves and future generations. 

For more information on our work in environmental health, please visit: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/air-pollution-and-health/ 

About “Headlines We’d Like To See” 

“Headlines We’d Like To See” is a monthly blog and social media series by Vital Strategies in which we reimagine news headlines and the steps needed to make those headlines a reality. The series serves as a platform to help readers understand the root causes of poor health outcomes and the solutions that are available to prevent and address today’s leading public health challenges. 

About Vital Strategies 

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. 

To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.