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Stop Blaming Climate Change on People With Health Conditions

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

“Asthma carbon footprint ‘as big as eating meat,’” proclaims a headline on the BBC News website. According to researchers quoted in the article, metered dose inhalers produced nearly 4 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the U.K.’s National Health Service. The article then goes on to suggest that people who use these types of inhalers should consider switching to more environmentally friendly dry powder inhalers, even though that would require learning new breathing techniques and might not work for a lot of people.

This article is yet another example of a recent, disturbing trend in environmental activism — blaming people with disabilities and health conditions for pollution and climate change. This scapegoating is misguided and harmful and it needs to stop.

People with asthma and other lung conditions should not be shamed for needing to breathe. The BBC article’s author reiterates that people who use metered-dose inhalers “should not be made to feel guilty,” yet includes multiple quotes from experts suggesting that patients change inhalers if possible. Perhaps most concerning is the statement from NHS chief executive Simon Steven, who says, “giving patients the option to, where clinically appropriate, shift to lower carbon ‘green’ inhalers as set out in the Long Term Plan is not only the right thing for them but also the planet.” Of course options are always good, but when it comes to healthcare, “options” often translates to “you must use this unless you jump through hoops to prove it won’t work for you.

In recent years, the climate change movement seems to be shifting towards blaming individuals, rather than holding corporations accountable for the environmental destruction they cause. The BBC article completely fails to mention that pharmaceutical companies are currently developing new metered-dose inhalers that do not contain greenhouse gases. These products are described as “several years from being introduced.” In other words, the problem is already being addressed, just perhaps not quickly enough. That being the case, why doesn’t the BBC article calling for the pharma companies that make billions in profits to step up their pace, rather than suggesting that people with asthma be responsible for changing inhalers?

Media outlets need to acknowledge the real harm they cause when they publish articles that could make people with disabilities and chronic illnesses feel bad about the treatments and equipment we need to live. We care about the environment too, so if we’re told something we require is harmful, we may try to go without it and hurt ourselves in the process. When a person has an asthma attack, they need the most effective medication and they need it fast, or they could be hospitalized or even die. If they hesitate to use their rescue inhaler because they feel guilty about supposedly contributing to global warming, or if they’ve switched to a more environmentally friendly inhaler that doesn’t work as well for them, the health consequences could be severe.

Articles that criticize medications and medical products as harmful to the environment can also make people with health conditions targets for bullying and harassment. Social media has made it easier to hurl abuse at a random chronically ill person tweeting, “Hey, I need this to live” than to hold corporations and governments responsible for trashing the planet. Before you demand that someone change their asthma medication, ask yourself, who is harming the environment more, the coal plants and the millions of cars spewing out toxic greenhouse gases or the people who can’t breathe because of them?

It may seem far-fetched to think a person with asthma could be harassed for using an inhaler in public, or be forced to use a less-effective inhaler, but it’s already happening with another device that’s essential for many people with disabilities — straws. The movement to ban straws was relatively obscure until a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up his nose went viral. This video rightly enraged the public, but the public then wrongly pushed for straws to be banned, drowning out the voices of people with disabilities who require straws to drink.

Environmental activists seized the opportunity to target straws, even though they are a small part of the plastic waste problem in comparison to other commonly-used items like plastic bags or drink bottles. They blamed individuals who use straws rather than recycling facilities that don’t have the equipment to process them or plastic manufacturers that have raked in billions but done little to develop biodegradable alternatives. And they refused to listen to disability advocates who pointed out that products like paper straws can be ineffective and unsafe for some people. As a result, people with disabilities have reported receiving negative comments and dirty looks when using straws at restaurants, and people with invisible disabilities have been questioned and berated when they asked their server for a straw.

Yes, the climate is in crisis, and it is up to all of us to do something about it. People with disabilities and health conditions are not exempt from responsibility. I’ve done my part by switching to reusable straws at home, and I spent many hours researching alternative straws that can help many people with disabilities. I recycle. But I also have certain medical needs that generate more garbage than the average person, and although I’ve tried, I can’t find a reusable solution.

The fact is, living with a disability or chronic illness can mean having a higher impact on the environment. We may generate medical waste, require medications that are later found in municipal water supplies, use mobility devices with batteries that contain toxic chemicals and more. We often don’t have access to more environmentally friendly technologies — for example, until this year there were no hybrid or electric vehicles available in the U.S. that could accommodate a wheelchair ramp or lift. But none of these things are our fault, and we should not be made to feel guilty about them. We don’t have a choice. But you know who does? Governments. Corporations. Wealthy people. So let’s hold them accountable. Let’s worry about the other 96 percent of greenhouse gases and not the 4 percent of people who are just trying to breathe.

Getty image by Wavebreak Media.

Originally published: October 31, 2019
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