By David Richards
Founded in 2012 by Pure Earth in partnership with a number of international institutions and low- and middle-income country (LMIC) agencies, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) took the final steps this past May to incorporate as an independent, international organization. GAHP members and observers met in Geneva to approve the organization’s new governance structure and regulations. The change will allow GAHP to expand its role facilitating pollution prevention and reduction activities in LMICs. GAHP identifies itself as the only international organization that focuses on reducing exposure to all forms of pollution, including air, soil and water pollution, through a health lens.
Incoming GAHP Executive Director Rachael Kupka wants to further establish the organization as an independent thought leader, putting pollution prevention and mitigation on the international agenda. “It is really exciting to be launching this,” said Kupka. “It became quite clear that if we wanted to scale up solutions to pollution problems, we needed to separate from Pure Earth. We needed to incorporate and function similarly to a policy-oriented and advocacy type of international organization to gain credibility on an international scale.”
As discussed in Geneva, part of GAHP’s growth will come internally by nominating a board of directors, setting up a governing council, and creating topic-specific committees. Members agreed on new regulations regarding membership policies and the GAHP Secretariat, which will continue to be hosted by Pure Earth in New York City. Apart from organizational governance, GAHP members discussed actions planned this year to elevate the international conversation around pollution to the same status as climate change, biodiversity, and oceans.
In January 2019, GAHP, in collaboration with Pure Earth, published “Pollution Knows No Borders,” which emphasizes the transboundary nature of pollution. Reports such as this are informing GAHP’s country-specific health and pollution action plans, designed to assist governments of LMICs in prioritizing and enacting solutions that address pollution exposure and related health illnesses. In Madagascar, GAHP convened the the ministries of health and environment to adopt recommended policies that regulate indoor air pollution, ambient air pollution, and chemical contamination. “Because it had been validated, the government was able to commit to these priorities and move forward with them, despite a change in political leadership,” said Kupka. “We were able to produce something that is helping make change on the ground.”
Sharing the Global Burden of Pollution
GAHP recognizes that organizational changes within individual countries can result in the successful abatement of pollution globally. “The reason why pollution has been ignored for so long is because it falls between the cracks, such as those between the ministry of housing, environment, industry, transport, agriculture, and so on,” said Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth and GAHP founder. “No one takes responsibility for it.” By increasingly promoting scientific research and assisting LMICs, GAHP is changing that narrative.
Fuller cites GAHP’s influence on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 and the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report in 2017 as the impetus for separating itself from Pure Earth. GAHP, on behalf of LMICs, played an important role in ensuring that the SDG on health included the impacts of all types of pollution, such as hazardous chemicals, air, water, and soils. The commission’s report, produced by GAHP, The Lancet, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, named pollution as the largest environmental cause of disease and death, contributing to an estimated 9 million premature deaths a year. Fuller co-chaired the report with Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health.
The findings from the report are guiding the way GAHP members and observers are developing international dialogue, national policies, and strategic frameworks, including at NIEHS. “The report is sort of the reference document in this space now,” said Landrigan. “It lays out in great detail the fact that pollution is a huge problem, but it can be prevented.” NIEHS participated in an inaugural workshop based on the report’s recommendations in March 2018 for the Global Burden of Disease Pollution Health Initiative, which aims to expand the tracking of the health burden of environmental pollution. In November 2018, the Institute invited Landrigan, Fuller, and former NAEHS Council member Howard Hu, M.D., Ph.D., to participate in an Office of the Director workshop on pollution and health.
Collaborating with Research Institutions
Like other international environmental health movements, GAHP and Landrigan recognize the opportunity in building relationships to further address pollution. “Partnership is essential. These are all enormous issues and no one individual or institution is sufficient for the task. The only way to make progress is to form partnerships,” said Landrigan. “At the end of the day, we want government leaders and the global public to understand that pollution is a problem that can be solved. It is not inevitable.”
The Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, launched by Landrigan in September 2018, is a partnership among Boston College, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the United Nations Environment Programme. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the United Nations Environment Programme are also GAHP members.
The NIEHS Global Environmental Health Program is exploring ways to provide technical support to GAHP in its efforts to address environmental health problems around the world. Though NIEHS is not a formal member of GAHP, it will serve as an observer and follow GAHP’s work. “NIEHS and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution share the same goal of reducing the burden of diseases caused by environmental exposure around the world,” said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health and Global Environmental Health Program director. “By serving as an observer to the Alliance, we hope to identify ways that we can bring our various scientific resources to bear where they are most needed.”
NIEHS is open to and has established relationships with other international organizations in the past. Most notably, NIEHS has been collaborating with the World Health Organization (WHO) since the 1970’s. In 2013, the Institute was designated as the WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, dedicated to translating research findings into effective public health interventions around the world. In addition, NIEHS supports the WHO Chemical Risk Assessment Network, which builds technical capacity and communicates the harms of chemical exposure and toxicity.