In Conversation: Irish Doctors For The Environment

WRITTEN BY Caoimhe Mahon

May 18, 2024

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In Conversation: Irish Doctors For The Environment

Caoimhe Mahon

18 May, 2024

‘Irish Doctors For The Environment’ (IDE) is a charity and NGO consisting of Irish medical professionals and healthcare workers. With one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet, having identified the climate crisis as the biggest threat to global health of the 21st century, as a collective group, the charity strives to promote an awareness of the intrinsic link that exists between environmental health and human health. Furthermore, a core goal of theirs is to implement action around environmental health, whilst educating society on the fact that poor environmental health ultimately impacts human health in a negative capacity. 

This week, I sat down with one of their members, Johnny, who is a doctor in Dublin. As a doctor Johnny’s priority is to help people and deliver the highest standard of care possible to all patients. However, whilst describing his passion for medicine to me, he also made it clear that he was fully aware of the harmful impact that standard medical practices are having on our environment. 

Johnny goes on to explain some of the ways that the healthcare system contributes to harmful carbon emissions.

He lists: 

  • The use and waste of potent anaesthetic gases.
  • Waste within the healthcare system – single use gowns, visors, tourniquets.
  • Single use surgical equipment and packaging.
  • Energy inefficient buildings.

The above do, undoubtedly, contribute to the release of carbon emissions, however, of course, these are extremely challenging to navigate in an attempt to conjure up solutions, which reduce the threat to the environment whilst still delivering on patient care. 

Despite this there are measures, which can be taken within the hospital setting to try and make things more environmentally friendly. For example, some plastic packaging, cups and utensils could be changed to reusable items such as keep cups, lunch box containers & reusable packaging.

This is a great example of making small, realistic changes where and when we can in the hope of being able to maintain them.  

In fact, the IDE has been advocating for better personal and environmental health via a number of active measures, one of which, for example, is through the ‘Active Transport Working Group.’ This perfectly encapsulates the mutual benefits enjoyed when we protect environmental health as this consequently promotes better human health.  

For example, cycling or walking to work when possible evidently reflects mutual benefits. When you cycle you are, of course, through active exercise ensuring better personal health whilst reducing your carbon footprint by leaving the car in the drive. 

This seems like a win win. 

Recently there appears to have been a surge in the promotion of personal fitness and general health promoted via gym bundles, health books, mindfulness apps and of course, through all social media channels. It is certainly great to have an increase in resources, which encourage mental and physical well being.  However, the degree at which personal health is being promoted is not on par with environmental health, which appears to have been placed firmly on the back burner of the health agenda. 

With this in mind I asked Johnny how he felt we could try and elevate both environmental and human health so that they were aligned in terms of education, resources and protection. Through his response Johnny returned once more to the potential mutual benefits shared between environmental health and exemplified the point via this explanation.

If you are out in nature engaging in activities like hiking, sea swimming, cycling or outdoor yoga etc then you develop an appreciation, love and respect for the environment, in which you are enjoying physical and mental health benefits. The hope is that when you ignite that connection to the environment then you will want to aid in its preservation, and consequently will try to forge out ways in which you can become more environmentally friendly. 

Whilst the mutual benefits are easier to spot and more comforting to hear, the sad reality is, we have to face up to the mutual negatives and their potential impact, which Johnny explains:

  • Increase in extreme weather patterns = risk to human life. 
  • Polar ice caps melting, increased sea levels = more destructive flooding and loss of habitable land.
  • Heightened storms = destruction to infrastructure and human life. 
  • Farming impacted = weakened food supply, resulting in increased competition and conflict for resources. 
  • Infectious diseases spreading = pandemics / illnesses, which puts even more pressure on health care. 
  • Less habitable spaces = increased climate refugees.

In fact, the World Health Organisation released figures stating that 99% of the world is already living in areas with sub par air quality, which has devastating ramifications. In fact, sadly, we are already bearing witness to such ramifications, for example, 6.7 million premature deaths occur every year due to air quality alone. 

Whilst it is certainly easier and often more comforting to adopt an out of sight out of mind approach when it comes to the climate crisis it is often the case that the most difficult topics to recognise and discuss remain some of the most important. 

This article is not intended to scaremonger or increase anxiety levels but rather to act as a reminder that we have a part to play, a part which I can admit is more challenging to some than others, including myself. We can, however, in our own ways and through our own lives try to make small changes in order to progress forward starting with educating ourselves on the topic. 

Johnny and the entire team at IDE were clear that education plays a crucial role in directing the narrative towards a path of change and productivity. 

For those of us studying areas where the environment is a core component this may be easier however, for many of us our academic courses, professions or lifestyles may not typically lend themselves to a curriculum of environmental health. Therefore, it is crucial that various avenues are explored in order to reach mass audiences and get the information circulating. 

IDE have been utilising social media platforms as well as creating a visual presence on the streets in order to raise awareness and generate discussion. They see their position as one of privilege and influence, which gives them a platform to voice their message. Whilst we may not all be in the same position of privilege with a public platform we can try to use our voice within our own spheres of reach to generate discussion and spread information too. 

Johnny told me of how his personal journey with environmental health stemmed from a love of the outdoors from a young age and as he has gotten older he has found new forms of inspiration through the work of Greta Thunberg and other climate activists. Both of which fuel his motivation and aid in his work towards promoting good environmental health and ultimately human health

Perhaps the starting point for a path towards a healthier future is finding that source of personal inspiration and connection within yourself that will fuel you in your own attempts in generating healthier habits both for yourself and the planet alike. 

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