Have environmental campaigners been missing a trick? You'd think so speaking to Genon Jensen, executive director of Brussels-based Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). ‘I think we would move a lot quicker and do a lot more on environmental problems if we engaged citizens and the health community on the health side of the issues. That is why I set up HEAL. It's not about saving the planet. It's a question of saving our health. I think the planet will continue to exist, the real question is what kind of quality of life humans will have.'
Founded in 2004, HEAL is an umbrella group of more than 67 citizen, patient, health professional, environmental and women's groups. It works to fill the breach between constituencies ‘back home' and the seemingly vague and far-away supranational government that is actually in charge of critical issues affecting health: the EU.
‘We make sure that when decisions are being made, we bring forward the evidence on why we need to make a certain decision and we allow the grassroots organisations to weigh in,' says Jensen.
She insists that being based in Brussels is an asset when it comes to linking environmental policy to health issues: ‘People might be concerned about the health effects of a certain chemical, but the actual decision on whether or not this chemical will be in household goods is not made by your town's local mayor - it is coming from the EU.'
HEAL is currently focused on making a financial case for quick action on climate change. Its groundbreaking report, Acting Now for Better Health, published in September, details the economic savings of higher climate targets and links early action to immense health benefits and lower healthcare costs.
Jensen says, ‘If we commit to a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the current 20 per cent, we can save almost 60 per cent more in healthcare in the EU. That, in a way, speaks very loudly to those involved in climate change - not only environmentalists, but also to the climate negotiators who need to detail how much it will cost to commit to emissions reductions. We are saying it will cost much less, because of the public health savings that the government - and the people - are going to reap.'
Evidence in hand, HEAL has a small delegation attending the COP16 discussions at Cancun, where it plans to launch a statement on climate change and health that has been endorsed by all of the global health networks, including the World Medical Association and the International Federation of Medical Students.
‘We want to bring up the good news that a low-carbon economy will bring about a whole set of really important health benefits, particularly at a local level,' says Jensen.
On the ground lobbying
As for successes, she points to HEAL's work on strengthening the recent pesticides revision law in the EU. ‘When the report came out from the Commission it wasn't as strong as we thought it could be. We were able to reach out to a lot of conservative members of parliament and other decisionmakers who weren't necessarily convinced by the environmental argument. We published a scientific review of why certain groups are more vulnerable to pesticides and what we should do about it. We talked about cocktail effects, about if women are pregnant and their foetus is exposed that it has implications for children having certain diseases in adult life.
‘In bringing this report, with policy recommendations, out to the parliament and various national governments, we were able to actually significantly improve the original proposal to highlight vulnerable groups in the law and include EU guidelines that ask countries to work towards pesticide-free public spaces, so that we can protect vulnerable groups such as pregnant women. Let's put it this way: why would anyone say they want pesticides in their local park?'
Yet political lobbying aside, some health issues have little public awarness - a fact that makes campaigning much more difficult.
In particular, HEAL has found it difficult to make headway on air pollution. ‘We had very solid science that shows that reducing particulates and air pollution would have immediate benefits on the number of heart attacks and childhood asthma. We have laws in place, but when it comes down to actually implementing them and making changes to get to cleaner air, I don't think we have the public outcry or the real connection between understanding that our quality of life is very dependent on the kind of environment we live in.
‘We need to hold politicians accountable on a national level to achieving policy targets on cleaner air and water,' says Jensen. One way to start would be by becoming more aware of our right to clean air.
On the flip side, HEAL's ‘Stay healthy, stop mercury' campaign has been successful for precisely that reason: 'People - in particular pregnant women - are very interested in learning more because they know it could affect them.'
In what seems like an endless array of environmental hazards, how do they choose which ones to take on? ‘We try to pick very concrete campaigns. While there is a whole range of chemicals we could look at, sometimes it is good to take just one chemical and make a case on what damage it may be doing to human health, and make it much more tangible to the average citizen.'
From asthma and allergies, diabetes and reproductive problems to cancer and obesity, environmental degradation plays a role.
HEAL demands that policymakers look at the evidence linking health issues to the environment, and holds them accountable for policies that affect Europeans' wellbeing.
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor
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