The U.S. Senate’s bipartisan approval of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan should give cause for collective hope. It’s extremely encouraging that our leaders in government, regardless of political party affiliation, can agree on something this important. The Build Back Better Agenda’s component of repairing our nation’s bridges, roads and public transit systems is desperately needed and long overdue.
Looking beneath the surface of the Senate Infrastructure Bill uncovers much more “there” there. Beyond roadways, airways and railways, there is recognition in this legislation — which is more important to our future than many Americans realize — that economic health, environmental health and public health are not only aligned, they are inextricably intertwined.
Think back on the environmental disasters of the last few decades: Los Angeles and toxic smog; soil contamination in Toms River, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan’s poisoned water supply. These were not isolated incidents, but part of a growing pattern of environmental degradation that impacts our very health and lives. This disturbing pattern continues in nearly constant present-day environmental catastrophes: wildfires raging throughout the American West and now in Greece and Turkey; extreme storms across the U.S. and the world, resulting in rising floodwaters wiping out whole towns in southern Europe; African famines caused by ever-increasing water scarcity. This litany of environmental disasters almost too numerous to count signals, even to skeptics, that something must be done.
Who must act? These are not Republican or Democratic Party problems, and they are not caused solely by one company or one industry. Fixing the root causes of these issues will require the best efforts of all of us: lawmakers, businesses and citizens. Preventing disease, despair and death is now a national — nay, a global — imperative, and environmental health, economic health and public health are everyone’s priorities.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a good first step toward finally working together on these defining health issues. It provides much more than infrastructure; its importance to mitigating climate change and improving environmental health — and thereby, human health — is critical. Allen Hershkowitz, Ph.D., board chairman and founding director of Sport and Sustainability International and former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, shares:
“The U.S. Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill provides critically important funding for some of the investments urgently needed to address climate change, water pollution, and the shift away from fossil-fuel-based transportation. In doing so, the infrastructure bill will advance important ecological and public health goals, and it will undoubtedly support a healthy economy for years to come.”
Here are the public health highlights that are the unseen part of this bipartisan bill:
Clean Drinking Water
Right now, up to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and childcare centers lack safe drinking water. The proposed bill’s $55 billion allocation represents the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history. It includes dedicated funding to replace lead pipes found across America, from rural towns to struggling cities to prosperous suburban neighborhoods. The deal’s significant investment in water infrastructure across America includes the Tribal Nations and disadvantaged communities that have been neglected longest and which need it most.
“Lead exposure in a child’s early years comes with guaranteed harm to their development — replacing America’s lead pipes is a sorely overdue national priority, and means thousands of healthier children and families,” added EPA’s recent chemical office chief Alexandra Dunn.
Where you live impacts how long and how well you live. Thousands of U.S. communities contain ticking toxic time bombs. The harsh reality is that 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanic Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site, exposing these communities of color to dangerous levels of lead and other heavy metals and chemicals. At special risk are children, whose endocrine and other bodily systems are still developing.
The Senate-approved deal invests $21 billion in environmental remediation to tackle legacy pollution that diminishes the health of whole towns and neighborhoods. In addition to protecting the health of these communities, the legislation provides funds and creates jobs to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites. If we turn our backs on these tasks, we turn our backs on the people living near these sites across the nation.
America’s transit system is hobbled with a multibillion-dollar repair backlog of more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement. The Senate’s $39 billion allocation to modernize transit, the largest-ever Federal investment in public transit, dedicates a larger share of funds to repair and upgrade aging infrastructure, modernize bus and rail fleets, make stations accessible to all users and bring transit service to forgotten communities. It will replace thousands of aging transit vehicles with clean, zero emission vehicles. Communities of color, twice as likely as average to rely on public transportation, will see long-neglected needs addressed.
Electric School Buses
Our nation’s children have long breathed black smoke emissions belching from the yellow school bus fleets that take them to and from school. Diesel air pollution is linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and other health problems that cause students to miss school, particularly in communities of color and Tribal communities. This legislation will deliver thousands of electric school buses nationwide, helping more than 25 million children and thousands of bus drivers. It will also promote production of clean, non-polluting American-made buses.
Pollution Mitigation for Communities of Color
Black people are almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than their white counterparts. More than one in three Latinx/Hispanics in the U.S. — or more than 23 million — live in counties where the air quality does not meet Environmental Protection Agency public health standards for smog.
The Senate’s roughly $65 billion investment is the single largest in clean energy transmission in the nation’s history. It upgrades the country’s power infrastructure, calling for thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines that open pathways for renewable energy; creates a new “Grid Deployment Authority” that will lead to research and development for advanced transmission and electricity distribution technologies; and promotes smart grid planning and next-generation technologies such as carbon capture and clean hydrogen, resulting in air that we can all breathe safely.
The Infrastructure bill is a huge step forward, but it needs to be fully funded and supported.
“There is an inseparable relationship between human health, economic health and planetary health and given the scale and urgency of worsening global climate disruption, and the threat it poses to human survival, much more needs to be done,” states Dr. Hershkowitz. “To more effectively prepare our economy for the life-and-death ecological challenges that communities will face in the 21st century, and to do so equitably, it is essential for the Senate to now pass a budget reconciliation bill that builds on the important investments contained in the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. Doing so is essential if we are to truly transform our economy into one that aligns with ecological requirements.”
This needs to happen quickly for the sake of every aspect of our health. Supporting our environment is a good investment with a significant return. And, although paying the price tag may seem a big pill to swallow, funding the bipartisan package won’t be achieved through higher taxes, but rather by repurposing already allocated funds, including unused COVID-19 aid. Government will not have to work alone. Industry is ready and eager to roll-up-its sleeves to help. Adds Rachel Hodgdon, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), President and CEO:
“IWBI has always believed that human health and planetary health are inextricably linked. In our work to promote, assess and certify spaces that advance human health and well-being, we recognize how critical it is to highlight the link between buildings, human health and climate change. As the country considers significant investments in public infrastructure, our buildings are poised to lead by example in the effort to create people-first places. Now is our chance to take full advantage of the Federal government’s infrastructure proposal to deliver real benefits for people in the form of cleaner air and water and smart building technologies that measure and validate human performance metrics.”
Looking at the world around us, we can see the result of neglecting our infrastructure — America is crumbing. But we can also see the result of neglecting our environmental health, as our communities are ravaged by nature’s wrath in the form of storms, fires and pandemics. It’s time America moved forward united, addressing our environmental health by providing clean drinking water, cleaning-up environmental contamination, and decreasing pollution and greenhouse emissions, all of which have had disastrous impacts on our economic and public health. The Senate bill offers a ray of hope. A good start at addressing long neglected issues. It is not a cure, but it is a step in the right direction.
Special thanks to Shira Friedman and John Bianchi of FINN Partners for their careful review of this article. Appreciation to Medika Life editors: Drs. Robert Turner and Jeffrey Livingston.