Making Invisible Problems Visible

How Erika Mosesón, MD, educates on the effects of air pollution and encourages community-level advocacy

By Madeleine Burry
March 5, 2024

For Erika Mosesón, MD, a pulmonologist and ICU doctor, advocacy for clean air and climate action started small: signing petitions and writing letters.

Even as she attended conferences and learned about the health impacts of air pollution, her impression was that experts were handling it. “I didn't really think my voice was worth highlighting,” Dr. Mosesón said.

Erika Mosesón, MD

Erika Mosesón, MD
Host, Air Health Our Health

But her concerns grew with the repeal of the Clean Power Plan in 2019 and rolled-back federal protections around particulate matter and other environmental guidelines.

In response, Dr. Mosesón moved from writing letters to educating people in her home state of Oregon on the lung-related effects of pollution. She spoke at organization meetings and town halls and met with legislators. One way or another, she knew she needed to get the word out.

After all, problem-causing particulates are teeny-tiny; too small to be seen. “It’s literally invisible,” Dr. Mosesón said. But the impact on patients is not.

That’s how the Air Health Our Health podcast was born.

The podcast has a straightforward tagline—"Clean air saves lives”—and a blunt recommendation: “If you do nothing else, don't light things on fire and breathe them into your lungs.”

Giving a voice to the voiceless

In early 2017 , the Oregon legislature was considering bills aimed at transitioning from diesel-fueled engines to cleaner alternatives. At the time, Dr. Mosesón was on the executive committee for the Oregon Thoracic Society, and, in partnership with the American Lung Association, she was tapped to speak to legislators about clean air and the health impacts of air pollution.

“Our patients are bearing the burden of climate change.”

This role made it clear to her that lawmakers don’t hear diverse perspectives. A trucking company may budget for full-time lobbyists, whereas parents of kids with asthma aren't in the room.

So there’s an asymmetry to who is and is not heard from, Dr. Mosesón said. That’s why in her conversations and presentations, she advocates for those who might not otherwise be represented in the rooms where big decisions are made.

Automating advocacy

Over time, Dr. Mosesón found her schedule was filling up with meetings and presentations.

“I’m a full-time clinician,” Dr. Mosesón noted. She’s also a parent to three kids. When she was asked to attend a hearing, sometimes her schedule required her to decline. And so, early in the pandemic, the Air Health Our Health podcast and the accompanying website were born.

“The podcast and website were honestly a way to automate advocacy,” Dr. Mosesón said.

In many ways, the pandemic was an ideal time to launch the podcast. For one thing, the idea of podcasting from your closet or living room (as opposed to a professional audio studio) became commonplace. Plus, for a pulmonologist, these years were full of relevant topics like how climate change and particulate matter interacted with COVID-19, Dr. Mosesón noted.

“When I give talks, I tell people, if you can talk about smoking, you can talk about air pollution.”

Then, in 2020, the Labor Day fires led to Oregon having the worst air quality in the world. That same year, there were George Floyd protests around the country, including in Portland, which led to rampant use of tear gas and prompted Dr. Mosesón to dig into studies about these chemicals.

Given just how much air pollution affects health—and the continued extreme weather events (such as Oregon’s heat dome in summer 2021)—there was no shortage of topics for the podcast.

Next steps to empower physicians

Confronting climate change is daunting, and it is made more challenging by a partisan environment, distrust of experts, and disinformation. On her podcast, Dr. Mosesón aims to make it easier.

In each episode, she shares information and interviews experts. She shares how a patient might be affected by particular issues—radon, wildfires, and so on. The goal is to provide clinicians with a foundation on everyday issues.

“Every single doctor feels like they can talk to a patient about smoking, even if they don’t know all the deep nitty-gritty studies about it,” Dr. Mosesón said. The exact effects of smoking—cancer, heart disease, and lung disease—occur due to air pollution. “When I give talks, I tell people, if you can talk about smoking, you can talk about air pollution.”

Each podcast also features an array of action items.

Some steps are practical, such as creating a plan for heat events or encouraging radon testing. The solution could also be as simple as asking the right questions.

“I would love for every physician in their local community to be a clean air and climate advocate.”

For example, at a doctor’s visit for asthma, common recommendations are to use a HEPA filter or place a sheet protector on the bed, Dr. Mosesón said. It won’t typically come up that a patient’s asthma may be caused or exacerbated by living beside a highway.

Dr. Mosesón also encourages advocacy. “There are all these different levels [of response],” she said. Next steps might involve writing a letter, contacting a councilperson, or advocating for a program (like retiring gas-powered leaf blowers).

For many patients, their doctor is the only person they routinely interact with who has advanced scientific training. Rather than presenting dry data, Dr. Mosesón recommends framing changes and recommendations in ways that are meaningful to neighbors.

“Each physician or clinician is going to know the values of their community,” Dr. Mosesón said.

If you’re in a military town, advocating for electric cars may be easier if framed around decreasing dependence on foreign oil. If the region recently experienced back-to-back heat events, advocating for a cooling center might be galvanizing.

What is Dr. Mosesón’s ultimate goal? Inform others so well that she can retire her podcasting equipment.

“I would love,” Dr. Mosesón said, "for every physician in their local community to be a clean air and climate advocate."

Listen to collaborative episode with CHEST

Be sure to check out a special episode of the Air Health Our Health podcast, where Dr. Mosesón and CHEST Advocates Editor in Chief, Drew Harris, MD, FCCP, discuss the serious health issues impacting coal miners. They take a deep dive into black lung disease and silica dust, highlighting the science and research, prevention efforts and challenges to implementation, and the importance of advocacy work.