Nearly every day, a new report comes to my attention that evaluates an existing problem or proposes how to solve one. Most frequently, the new insights are incremental. Reducing the parts per million concentration of an air pollutant, achieving continuous annual improvement in energy efficiency, or increasing municipal recycling rates all illustrate the predominant approach to current problem-solving. These types of initiatives are beneficial, but none of them effectively respond to the scale of the problems facing humankind now and in the future.
A new report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) transforms our mental maps and presents innovative ideas for resolving larger-scale problems. Titled “Transforming EPA Science to Meet Today’s and Tomorrow’s Challenges,” the report was publicly released on March 9 and goes well beyond the Environmental Protection Agency in the scope of its analysis and range of its applications. Funded by the EPA, the report was prepared by a committee of 17 members representing a diversity of expertise and personal backgrounds including the health and environmental sciences, environmental justice, information and other digital technologies, public policy, and sustainability analysis. (Disclosure: This columnist was a member of the committee.)
The continuing degradation of biodiversity and related aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems has led to an outcome in which human health can no longer be sufficiently protected …
The value and uniqueness of the NASEM report lie in its ability to clearly communicate innovative concepts and data that inhabit a range of scientific disciplines. It constructs a science and policy roadmap for addressing some of our most important challenges, now and in the future. It does so by proposing a new policy framework for decision-makers at all levels of society and leverages major scientific and technological innovations for use by government, businesses, and citizens.
An integrated environmental and public health strategy
Since the beginning of the modern era of environmental protection in the 1970s, public health issues have been managed separately from those impacting ecosystems. The continuing degradation of biodiversity and related aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems has led to an outcome in which human health can no longer be sufficiently protected as environmental support systems necessary for human life — air, land and water — continue to deteriorate, and critical species cannot survive in the face of human overconsumption of natural resources.
The One Environment-One Health framework developed by the NASEM committee takes a unified approach by no longer separating environmental considerations from public health decisions. Rather, it proposes to jointly examine existing ecological and human data, and ambitiously plan and fund new research initiatives that better inform the complex interactions among environmental, social and economic systems. The EPA and other institutions have begun to develop initiatives to support this new framework, but the NASEM committee’s report significantly builds on these efforts in the quest for even bolder, more scalable solutions.
One Environment-One Health fundamentally rests upon two powerful foundations: acknowledging that our physical environment is a rich source of data — nature itself is data; and collecting, analyzing and applying multiple data sets increasingly through digital technologies.
What digital technology tools exist to support a One Environment-One Health approach? The advancement of digital technologies is rapidly advancing the toolkit for both decision-makers and citizens to implement an integrated environmental-public health strategy. Examples include:
- Monitors and sensors to track and trace pollutants and materials. Track-and-trace technologies can be used for a growing number of sustainability challenges. IBM and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste are applying PRISM (Plastics Recovery Insight and Steering Model), a cloud-hosted platform to track plastic waste and recovery globally. The PRISM platform is initially designed to focus on such data sets as plastic consumption and collection, plastic waste generated and leaked into the environment, waste management, and recycling solutions. The range of environmental monitors and sensors applied to other health and environmental challenges continues to expand and includes personal monitors, remote sensing technologies, and satellites.
- Citizen science. This emerging field refers to the active participation of citizens in gathering environmental data and developing new ways to solve local and regional environmental and public health problems. Citizens are trained in the use of sensors or other monitoring technologies and work in collaboration with government agencies and NGOs. In November, the EPA awarded $53.4 million for 132 projects to enhance air quality monitoring near chemical plants, refineries, and other industrial sites. One grant recipient was the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, a New Orleans-based organization, which received nearly $500,000 to aid community groups in monitoring local air quality, including chemical hotspots where cancer risks are far above the national average. Data collected from this initiative will be used to guide enforcement activities and regulatory policies.
- Machine learning. This is a rules-based approach to provide computers with specific instructions, called algorithms, that identify data patterns to process information. Machine learning can assess interrelated climate change-pandemic risks, evaluate multi-pollutant exposures within lower-income communities and identify previously undetected stresses to critical species.
- Integrated data sets. Advances in data analytics and computing capabilities are making it possible to use large-scale data sets to improve decision-making on a global scale. These include data sets for air quality, temperature, greenhouse gas concentrations, river flows, wildlife movement, bird migration, and movements of human populations. These and other data sets can be juxtaposed with comparative assessments of air and water quality, chemical exposures and hazards, and cumulative risks to expand the range of options available for decision-makers in both the public and private sectors to shape policy and investment strategies.
The greater integration of larger amounts of multiple data sets combined with the growing scale of environmental and public health crises increasingly provides public policymakers, business executives and citizens with more impactful solutions.
Applying the One Environment-One Health Framework
The greater integration of larger amounts of multiple data sets combined with the growing scale of environmental and public health crises increasingly provides public policymakers, business executives and citizens with more impactful solutions. Two examples illustrate the transformation of existing policy frameworks through a One Environment-One Health approach.
- The transition beyond the internal combustion engine. The current regulatory regime for the internal combustion engine focused historically on tailpipe and refueling emissions. As policymakers and auto manufacturers transition to electric vehicles (EVs), their historical priorities will recede (although not disappear) as EVs capture greater market share and new contamination sources emerge. These range from environmental and workforce exposures originating from mining operations to storage, distribution, and processing of metals to support semiconductor and other manufacturing operations. A new regulatory policy framework that encompasses point sources, area sources, and the broader value chain will require new data management systems to inform both environmental and health decision-making simultaneously for a broad number of newer issues.
- Food waste management. Besides food insecurity, food waste is a major contributor to three simultaneous planetary crises: climate change (including water resource availability), nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2021 that food waste from households, retail firms, and the food service industry totaled 931 million metric tons. A major factor in our inability to solve the food waste problem lies in the disconnections among farmers, food collection and transport systems, food processing businesses, retail establishments, and consumers. This balkanization across the food value chain mirrors similarly disjointed policy responses by governments and investment decisions by businesses. What is needed is a common framework for developing solutions informed by open-source data systems that enable everyone from farmers to consumers to see their common interests and for regulators and businesses to raise the bar on innovative agricultural practices, energy, and water efficiencies, improved post-harvest refrigeration alternatives and updated nutritional behavior.
The transition to a One Environment-One Health policy framework will require the alignment of scientific research, business strategies, financing, and policy development over many years even as momentum to build shorter-term insights and results emerge.
Embedding scientific investigation and innovation as part of solutions developed on a larger scale creates ever-greater opportunities for collaboration across governments, businesses and NGOs. One Environment-One Health is not only the next data frontier, it is the next policy frontier.