“A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes …” Stockholm, 1972
All living things depend on their environment for energy and for the basic requirements that sustain life – air, water, food and habitat. This simple dynamic is not in dispute. However there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the relationship between environment and human health is in fact a reciprocal one, each having complex effects on the other. According to the UN Environment Programme, every human being has the right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment…….but what exactly are these complex relationships, and how can we ensure that human rights to a safe and healthy environment are delivered, even under conditions of rapid global environmental change?
Much of our society’s development has depended upon technological advancements in our environment; improvements in agriculture, sanitation, water treatment, and hygiene have had revolutionary effects on health, well being and longevity. While our environment and the natural resources within in it sustain human life, it can also be the limiting factor in improving health, as well as being a primary source of disease and infection. Lack of basic necessities are a significant cause of human mortality. Approximately 1.1 billion people currently lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion do not have proper sanitation1, so while advancements in managing the productivity of our environment has resulted in access to surplus quantities of food, water and services, for many, this development has not occurred equally across the world.
Our environment can also be a major source of infection. It is estimated that almost one quarter of global disease and 23% of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors2. Pollution and other environmental hazards such as food contaminants, over-exposure to sunlight, algal blooms, flooding and drought increase the risk of a myriad of health concerns that include cancer, heart disease, asthma and respiratory diseases, anxiety, stress and depression as well as many other illnesses. Environmental factors influence 85 out of the 102 categories of diseases and injuries listed in the World Health Report and in 2012, 7 million deaths worldwide were attributed to exposure to air pollution – now the world’s largest single environmental health risk3. However social and political aspects that affect our environment such as housing conditions, access to education, access to green space and poverty are major influencing factors in the relationship between health, well-being and environment.
On the other hand, policies and processes that are undertaken with the aim of promoting health and well-being can have significantly detrimental effects on ecosystems as well as our human environments. For example, food production requires unsustainably large volumes of fresh water and causes environmental damage from pesticides and fertilizers, soil erosion, animal wastes and carbon emissions from food manufacture and transportation. Disease prevention can also drastically alter environments. For example, malaria was eradicated in many developed nations in the 1950s by draining wetlands and spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes. The destruction of these ecosystems to control malaria, and the addition of persistent and toxic chemicals into the soils and watercourses has had long-term detrimental impacts on these ecosystems at a regional scale. Wide-spread disease prevention on a global scale creates additional consequences for the environment as the subsequent increase in longevity and reduction in human mortality creates further pressures from overpopulation, increased use of fossil fuels, increased land-clearing, water use and agriculture, as well as generating high volumes of pollution and waste.
Recently, a socio-economic approach to evaluating the benefits and services provided by ecosystems has provided insight into the threats and challenges that may lie ahead. The ecosystems services approach provides a framework for decision making, and for valuing the ‘products, functions and services’ ecosystems provide, to ensure that society can maintain a healthy and resilient natural environment, now, and for future generations. For example, The UK National Ecosystem Assessment indicates that the United Kingdom relies on it’s ecosystems for a range of services that include climate regulation, waste removal, pest control, flood protection, food supply, potable water, natural medicine, aesthetics, recreation and tourism, among many others. However, this innovative approach recognises and strives to promote the philosophy that our environment provides much more than material benefits. It states clearly that ecosystems contribute to national security, resilience, social justice, health and well-being, and freedom of choice and action4. Therefore, the degradation of our environment, and the ecosystems it supports can have seriously harmful and far-reaching impacts on society, its governance and the economy. Primary impacts of ecosystem degradation relate specifically to human well-being:
‘significant and detrimental human health impacts can occur if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs’ World Health Organisation
Secondary impacts that may result from a decline in ecosystem function can affect jobs, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause political unrest and conflict. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report estimates that globally, the degradation of our planet’s ecosystems is costing us €50 billion each year. This figure does not take into account the resultant impacts on national security and social justice, which have wide-ranging impacts on well-being, and the availability and access to food, water and healthcare provisions.
Of great concern is the way that the complex relationship between health and environment is evolving due to a culmination of global-scale changes including rapid changes in climate, flooding, drought and fluctuations in temperature, not to mention population growth and urbanisation. The World Health Organisation Global Forum on Urbanisation and Health in 2010 highlighted that for the first time in history more people live in urban settings than rural, and that conditions in cities will be among the most important health issues of the 21st century5. Greater urbanisation puts ever increasing pressure on services such as housing and health. Understanding the surrounding environment, the impact that an ever increasing population has on it and how we can develop and increase services with the least impact is key.
The use of our natural environment has provided human civilisation with many benefits, but the costs to our ecosystems have been severe and extensive. As our population continues to grow and our demands for food, fresh water, healthcare, fuel and building materials soar, we must ask ourselves what price we are prepared to pay. What legacy do we want to leave for future generations? Both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Health Organisation have made clear that unless we come to understand the relationship between environment and health and address they way we use and manage our environment, then we will substantially diminish the benefits and well-being that future generations can acquire from ecosystems, and severely compromise their ability to meet their basic human rights to a safe and healthy environment.
The Year of Environment and Health is a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh’s Global Health Academy and its Global Environment and Society Academy. It endeavors to examine the key issues in the relationship between Environment and Health through the lens of Global Change.
Join us in a series of public lectures exploring some of the themes discussed above:-
- Urbanisation and Health
- Pollution and Health
- Ecosystem Services and Health
- Extreme Weather and Health
- WHO http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/environmental_health/environmental_health_facts/en/index7.html
- Convention on Biological Diversity http://www.cbd.int/
- WHO Global Forum on Urbanisation & Health 2010