Have you ever had, or seen someone have, an asthma attack? I thought food allergies were terrifying. Then my two year old daughter, who had recently arrived from Vietnam, woke up one night wheezing and coughing. A call and quick assessment over the phone had us rushing to the ER. She was hospitalized for several days while they fought to get her breathing normal again. At that point, she became one of the 6 million kids, and 25 million people, in the US who have asthma.
Asthma is one of the most common, costly, preventable but incurable diseases in America. It is estimated to cost nearly $50 billion in medical costs a year, cause nearly 13 million missed days of work and school and in the ultimate consequence, over 4,000 people die every year. It disproportionately impacts communities of color and lower socioeconomic status.
However, there is a transition coming soon that will drive a dramatic reduction in this disease. But it’s not a new pharmaceutical or a medical cure. In fact, you will rarely find this innovation mentioned at a health conference. And the conferences dedicated to discussing this innovation and transition rarely reference the health benefits. What’s this miracle cure? It’s the move to electric vehicles and renewable energy.
This transition is expected to lead to a dramatic reduction in air pollution. Today, over four in ten Americans — more than 135 million people — live in communities impacted by unhealthy levels of air pollution. Varying exposures to air pollution is one of the leading drivers of health inequity in America. In their report, Zeroing in on Healthy Air, the American Lung Association sized what the benefits of the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles would be on health, nationally and in each city and state. The national impact is a staggering $1.2 trillion in public health benefits between 2020 and 2050. These benefits would take the form of avoiding up to 110,000 premature deaths, along with nearly 3 million asthma attacks and over 13 million workdays lost due to cleaner air. Those benefits are on top of the climate change related benefits.
Given that most employers pay for healthcare costs of employees, I would think and hope that this positive health impact is being evaluated, and counted, as part of the business case for Net Zero. But a quick survey of sustainability professionals suggests it rarely is. In large part, it’s because the benefit is believed to only accrue in such dramatic fashion if the whole system shifts, not just the company. While I understand that perception, some companies have an outsized impact on a community - either as a large power purchaser or as the employer of a large percentage of the population. Air pollution is a global problem that requires local fixes. If a company helps facilitate the shift to EVs and clean energy faster in their communities of significant impact, the employees and their families who live in those communities will get sick less - even if nothing changes two hundred miles away.
A company that has consistently made this connection and brought this conversation into the climate conversation is Johnson & Johnson (disclosure: a WeSpire customer). This week at Climate Week in NYC, a session on advancing environmental health equity featured Bethany Carlos, a pediatrician on the front lines of treating asthma in communities of color, Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of C-Change, the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard- Chan School of Public Health, and Paulette Frank, Chief Sustainability Officer at J&J. The pediatrician put a face on the data as she told the story about diagnosing a child with asthma, insurance wouldn’t cover preventative treatments like albuterol, so the child bounced in and out of the ER regularly, causing a parent to miss work and worry about job security. As you thought about the cumulative cost of just that one case, you couldn’t help but think that perhaps the estimates of the positive impact are even greater than what the reports suggest.
It’s hard to get your head around all the potential benefits of a clean economy, but the connection to health is one that needs to be reinforced and counted. Companies spend over $1 Trillion a year in health expenses here in the US, far greater in most cases than what they spend on energy and fuel. So let’s ensure that our leaders don’t ignore, or overlook, that a healthy planet leads to healthier people, and healthy people are good for business.