Neelima Tummala, a physician and assistant professor of surgery at the George Washington (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences, spoke to students in Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Environmental Health and Medicine track Oct. 26 about the impact they can have on the environmental health and justice movement.
As the co-director of the Climate Health Institute (CHI) at GW, Tummala stressed the interconnected nature between humans and their environment, citing how climate change leads to longer pollen seasons and wildfire smoke results in poorer pulmonary and cardiovascular health. Through research, training and action, GW’s CHI aims to find novel solutions to the challenges to health and equity that climate change poses.
“Physicians and healthcare providers have an important role to play in combating climate change and its effects on humans,” Tummala said at the event.
In the United States, which is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, the healthcare sector contributes roughly 4.5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Tummala said physicians and healthcare providers can lead the way in promoting environmental and health sustainability.
They can act on three different issues to do this: addressing health risks of climate change and air pollution, mitigating healthcare sector-related emissions and focusing on front-line communities and vulnerable populations.
Addressing the effects of climate change on disproportionately affected communities, Tummala says, is key to fighting for environmental justice.
“Environmental justice is the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations,” Tummala said.
With summer heat and poor air quality disproportionately and historically impacting communities of color, bringing about environmental justice will involve prioritizing communities that have been impacted the most, according to Tummala.
Physicians, healthcare providers and even students can begin addressing environmental and health inequities by pursuing research, advocacy and education, Tummala says.
Current research areas focus on air pollution, environmental inequity, occupational health, extreme weather events and sustainability in the healthcare sector. Tummala has written at length in both newspapers and medical journals about climate change impacts on ear, nose and throat health, her medical specialty. For example, Tummala said her current research into longer and stronger pollen seasons found a warming climate to be the cause of this change.
Tummala emphasized advocacy on behalf of impacted communities and education about environmental health as well.
“Doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers are some of the most trusted professions in the world,” Tummala said.
Tummala said these professionals have a special obligation to educate their patients about the impact of the environment on their health and to speak on behalf of their patients to lawmakers and officials shaping climate policy.
Physicians who teach, like Tummala herself, must also bear the responsibility of passing climate health knowledge to their students and peers in their universities, Tummala says. She adds that for people lacking professional credentials, like students, they should use the skills they have to address the health risks posed by climate change.
“There is no right way to tackle this complex issue,” Tummala said.
Because of this, she said she urges students interested in environmental health to be experimental in their approach to this challenge. In other words, students should find multiple ways that they can address the challenges posed to health by a changing environment. The most important approach students can take is to sustain the conversation about the severity of climate change.
“Environmental disasters happen and then everyone moves on,” Tummala said.
By keeping the discussion going, students can remind their peers that this issue can and will impact them. Tummala also urges students to use their voice as it relates to environmental justice.
“Students should share their personal lived experiences, give a platform to the voices of others and share their understanding of the urgency,” Tummala said. “You aren’t the reason climate change is happening, but your actions can help.”