April 9, 2020 ~ Environmental Health


We continue National Public Health Week 2020 with the topic of Environmental Health, which focuses on protecting and maintaining a healthy planet. Today, we would like to introduce Bill Droessler, who has been in the environmental health field for 17 years and is the current Program Development Officer at the Environmental Initiative.


The Environmental Initiative is a nonprofit organization that works with business, nonprofit and government leaders to develop collaborative solutions to Minnesota’s environmental problems.


Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about Clean Air Minnesota, Droessler  recommends looking at Minnesota takes strong problem-solving approach toward lowering air pollution and Our New Approach in Clean Air Minnesota, which are both short and give really good context.


What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of your area of public health?


More people need to raise their line of sight and understand that most of what we do to improve air quality and gain emission and exposure reductions have public health benefits; we need to think not only about tons of pollutant emissions reductions and federal standards, but also about how we don’t all breathe the same air (even in MN, which has generally good air quality).


By improving air quality, we can reduce asthma triggers and the associated missed days of school and really work to lessen the impact of poor air quality, much of which we can improve, on historically and currently over-burdened communities.


Describe your favorite public health project and/or experience with public health.


I’m most proud of the work our partnership did through Clean Air Minnesota and Project Green Fleet to retrofit every eligible school bus in Minnesota with a pollution control device on their engines. We serviced approximately 3,600 school buses across the state. It was made possible through leadership and funding from an extraordinarily diverse group of partners including the MN Center for Environmental Advocacy, the MN Chamber of Commerce, U.S. EPA, the MPCA and MDH, as well as companies like Flint Hills Resources and MN Power, and private foundations.


Why are you passionate about public health? 


I do this work for my sons’ futures and that we, as current leaders, need to leave things better than we found them.


What do you think is the most pressing environmental health topic in Minnesota today?

 

Well, other than the current pandemic, I think we need to start looking holistically at environmental issues and challenges as interconnected ecosystems and not solely focus on systems one piece at a time.

 

Do you think that your answer would change 10 years from now? 20 years?

 

I hope it would, but that would only happen if we’ve moved to that larger, interconnected perspective. We can then address how to ensure benefits and costs are distributed more equitably across the system.

 

What are some challenges that have been experienced in working with individuals from diverse backgrounds/organizations? How have you found ways forward together?


We talk and communicate - a lot. One challenge was that nothing like this had been tried in these circumstances. Our ongoing partnership focuses on voluntary emission-reduction projects utilizing a creative model for relationships among public and private stakeholders. All partners are risking and conceding some power but gain cleaner air to the benefit of all. The effort began by creating a safe space for stakeholders to discuss air quality issues and to identify champions for pioneering emission-reduction efforts in targeted industry sectors.


Another challenge is ensuring and deepening our shift toward work in overburdened communities and helping partners realize the value of combining our environmentally focused work with public health benefits. For example, we’re currently working with Ramsey County on a project that will hopefully leverage multiple funding sources, different kinds of expertise and lived experiences, and combine environmental, health, community, and business co-benefits.


This is similar to other past efforts, but constructed in a more comprehensive, cohesive, and from-the-ground-up manner. We’re trying to position government, business, nonprofit, community members, and numerous other partners to work together to develop, fund, and implement projects that improve air quality and have local public health benefits.


Clean Air Minnesota (CAM) is an innovative approach that challenges common notions of how to gain emission/exposure reductions. Because Minnesota is in attainment of federal air quality standards, there is little regulatory pressure to make people adopt emission-reduction activities. A completely voluntary, nonprofit-driven, public-private-community, statewide venture on this scale had no precedence. CAM partners worked to string together a critical mass of smaller projects. This concept was a new springboard toward greater air quality awareness and put Minnesota on the path toward cleaner air.

 

One of the silver linings of the current COVID-19 pandemic has been reduced air pollution in countries like China and Italy. Do you think that we will see the same thing here in the US? Do you think this will change people’s concepts of what they can realistically do to reduce their carbon footprints?

 

We will undoubtedly see pollutant reductions as people literally can’t travel and manufacturing and small business operations are severely restricted; that said, I’m not sure how much and how quickly some of that will bounce back after such restrictions are lifted; I would hope that we do learn to sustain some of the behaviors that we’ve been practicing during this pandemic to minimize emissions.


This time also points out the importance and value of thoughtfully and meaningfully addressing all sources of pollutants. One can make the argument that the “command and control” approach for reducing point source/smokestack sources of pollutants worked. For many targeted pollutants, those sources now emit fewer pollutants than mobile sources and neighborhood-scale sources like auto repair shops, print shops, and smaller manufacturing facilities – these sources are typically less regulated, more disperse, and closer to people in neighborhoods. Addressing these sources of pollutants is more difficult on every level making the approach and work of Clean Air Minnesota that much more important.



This interview is by the Minnesota Public Health Association for National Public Health Week (NPHW) 2020.



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