Health professionals should rally around a recent Pretoria High Court application that seeks to compel the government to reduce the dangerous levels of air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld to protect Constitutional rights to a healthy environment.
This is contained in a Call to Action on air pollution, climate change and health by the climate, energy and health special interest group of the Public Health Association of SA.
GroundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, filed the "Deadly Air" case in June.
This case, declares the Call to Action, "requires support from diverse voices, especially from health professionals nationwide.
"Everyone living in South Africa has the basic right to clean air now. We are asking health institutions, organisations, associations and/or professionals to endorse this Call to Action.
"Please join us in mobilising for clean air, urgent and stronger action to mitigate the impacts of climate change in SA and the prioritisation of people’s health needs."
Health professionals, especially those in the public sphere, have a duty of care toward current and future generations.
Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe in air at dangerous levels, it says.
The WHO has declared air pollution "a global public health emergency” and considers air pollution the greatest environmental risk to health.
"Chronic levels of air pollution in parts of SA already kill at least hundreds of people per year, mostly due to respiratory diseases," states the Call to Action. "Climate change will only exacerbate this epidemic, in addition to other multiple health impacts."
Recognising the enormous threat of climate change countries have declared 'climate emergencies', which includes the UK, Canada, France and parts of Australia. This is more than an environmental problem; air pollution and climate change are a public health crisis, especially in southern Africa.
"The public health community needs to be part of the solution - and it has the power to do so."
It calls on the government to "act now to protect our Constitutional rights by significantly reducing sources of air pollution, publishing the updated Integrated Resource Plan for electricity based on a least-cost climate mitigation scenario; adopting the air pollution roadmap approved by the World Health Assembly in 2016; leading SA in a just and inclusive transition to a low-carbon economy".
Health professionals can endorse the Call to Action and/or address a joint letter to the Presidency, Minister of Health, and Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, "in support of the Deadly Air case and calling on government to concede that there is a breach of section 24 – the Constitutional rights to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing - and to take further steps to reduce air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld".
They can address a joint letter to the Presidency, Minister of Health, and Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, calling on the government to prioritise climate change by declaring a national climate emergency and forming a climate change portfolio within the Presidency "to help steer South Africa in a just transition to a low-carbon economy".
Health professionals, too, can adopt the air pollution roadmap approved by the World Health Assembly in 2016, which focuses on expanding the knowledge base about the impacts of air pollution on health.
In June, the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine from SA, Brazil, Germany, and the US joined forces to issue an urgent call to action on harmful air pollution.