New U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office Will Address Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to address the public health risks brought on by climate change, based on a significant body of research showing that certain populations are disproportionately affected. These include individuals with chronic illnesses or mobility challenges, older people, low-income individuals, Black and indigenous populations and other people of color, people in certain occupational groups, and women and girls.

“Its mission is to protect the health of people experiencing a disproportionate share of climate impacts and health inequities from wildfires to drought, to hurricanes to floods,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra.

One of the office’s first tasks will be taking account of greenhouse gas emissions from various parts of the health care sector, according to U.S. officials. Other initiatives could include making hospital participation in Medicare and Medicaid contingent on meeting certain environmental goals as well as performance targets for physical plant adaptations, waste management, supply chains, and sustainable energy use.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and the American Psychological Association support the new office’s initiatives, other sectors of the medical industry might resist. For example, hospitals are concerned about complying with new environmental regulations while struggling with the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted temporary standards to improve workplace safety during the pandemic, including running air purification systems at a higher level in hospitals, resulting in more carbon emissions and increased energy use, said Michelle Hood, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the American Hospital Association. “Financial penalties would not address the root cause of these issues,” Ms. Hood added.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2021.