What if Karla Johnson hadn’t gotten that job with the county health department in 1998? She probably wouldn’t have become an environmental health advocate, never mind her work specifically with a child lead poisoning prevention program.
It was because of her work that Johnson decided to get her young son tested for lead poisoning. Sure enough, he had elevated lead levels in his blood.
Johnson will never know exactly what caused it.
“You know kids,” she said. “They get into all sorts of stuff.”
Johnson, 54, is an administrator in the Healthy Homes, Environmental Consumer Management & Senior Care Department with the health department, where she sees the big picture of how the environment affects health. Because it’s more than just lead. There’s other toxins, air pollution, water quality — all of it adds up and makes a difference.
Johnson’s wish: Acknowledge these facts and stop making it personal.
“If we can take politics out of it, if we can take personal views out of it, I think people would understand our environment is hugely important,” she said.
Why should we care about the environment?
The environment has a direct impact on a person’s health and well-being. Take ground-level ozone, for example, which is one of the most common air pollutants, especially in cities where there are more cars. Ground-level ozone contributes to smog and can reduce lung function, which leads to more medicine and emergency treatment for asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Indianapolis has an average of six unhealthy ozone days annually, giving the city an “F” rating by the American Lung Association.
About 80% of a person’s health is determined by where they live, their education level, access to food and other social factors, said Dr. Scheri-Lyn Makombe, chief medical officer at the Jane Pauley Community Health Center.
For Makombe, who lives in the suburbs, planting a vegetable garden in her yard is simple. But for someone who lives in an urban area where there’s been potentially dangerous levels of lead or mercury, the soil could be toxic.
Getting people to care about the environment — everything from climate change to what’s in the soil in their backyard — can be exhausting if you consider every problem at once, Makombe said. The key, she said, is to remain optimistic about each person’s circumstances.
This year, Marcya Hill-Brown, 29, has noticed the plants she’s cared for burn and die faster than ever before. Her plants normally live for over three years; now they barely live for two weeks before completely dying.
Climate change, the shift in the Earth’s measures of climate over a long period of time, is a result of global warming — the warming of the Earth’s surface temperature due to an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Heat-trapping pollutants such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and water vapor collect in the air and make it hotter, creating a greenhouse effect.
“Seeing the Earth turning against us is truly something,” Hill-Brown said.
Dr. Rae Schnapp, director of conservation at the Indiana Forest Alliance, believes the solution to climate change may be easier than we think and could start with simple gestures such as cleaning up your neighborhood.
Beautifying Indianapolis can be as easy as picking up litter in your neighborhood to as extensive as making pocket parks — unused areas in urban environments that are transformed into parks with grass, trees and other vegetation. However, there is more to beautification than making the environment look good.
Beautification — improving the appearance of a neighborhood, town, city or urban area — does not begin by picking up trash, planting trees and creating greenspaces throughout the community. Beautification begins with creating a connection with the environment, Marian University restoration ecologist Stephanie Schuck said.
“Some people have never had the opportunity to connect with nature,” she said.
For Schuck, a connection to nature is the momentum behind sustaining the appearance of a community. For Willie Barnes, creating a relationship with the neighborhood drives him to preserve the community through regular cleanups.
“Take pride in where you live,” he said. “Help clean up the neighborhood. It’s essential to our health.”
Through these connections people are able to come together to not only strengthen their community, but also to care for their environment.
Although everyday citizens can’t tackle climate change on their own — a 2019 study from Climate Accountability Institute found 100 energy companies are responsible for 71% of all industrial emissions of greenhouse gas — there are small steps people can take to help the planet.
Community gardens have multiple benefits for the environment, including improving air and soil quality, increasing biodiversity of plants and animals, the reduction of “food miles” required to transport food and reduce neighborhood waste through composting, according to GreenLeaf Communities. The gardens also help eliminate food access and improve the health of the surrounding community.
According to the American Heart Association, those who live in a food desert are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Living in a food desert also increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Teaching children how to garden has immediate benefits as well as long-term benefits. In the short term, the youth are solving an immediate need of fresh produce while improving their environment for today and tomorrow, said Aster Bekele, executive director of the Felege Hiywot Center.