Environmental protection is a lot more than protecting polar bears and river dolphins from the threat of extinction.  Most environmental issues have a direct connection to public health. Take the example of water. Currently, according to the World Health Organization, over one billion people live without access to safe drinking water and approximately 2.5 billion people are living without adequate sanitation.  The 2008 annual report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) states that approximately 1.2 billion people still have no sanitation at all.  In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, less than one third of the population has access to safe drinking water.  Clearly, as a global population, we are not coming close to meeting the relatively modest UN Millennium Development Goals under goal 7: Halve by 2015 the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water. This is a true governance challenge. Unfortunately, with no effective way to ensure attainment with global environmental goals or requirements, the MDGs for water will suffer the same fate as the requirements of approximately 500 multinational environmental agreements: well intentioned efforts that are not achieving environmental and human health protection.

Water may be one of the more obvious environmental issues directly linked to public health, but the case of air pollution is just as compelling.  Many urban areas in the United States are still non-attainment areas for meeting standards under the Clean Air Act.  Ozone and particulate levels are strongly associated with the incidence of adverse health effects such as asthma. Children growing up in more impoverished neighbourhoods with poor air quality are far more likely to suffer from asthma.  Although there are still numerous critical air quality problems, North America has made great progress towards reducing air pollution with the case of atmospheric lead reduction as perhaps the most compelling public health victory in the field since the 1970 Clean Air Act.  However, the story for the rest of the world is not nearly as optimistic.  Whether it is the health effects of massive rainforest burns in Indonesia, the growing megalopolis and inversion layer problems of Mexico City or the results of the exponential industrialization of China, more and more people are being exposed to air quality that poses major health risks.  According to the World Bank 16 of the planet’s 20 cities with the worst air are now in China. Populations breathing air with high concentrations of lead and other toxic metals is far too commonplace.  And air quality problems are certainly not limited to outdoors, as some of the most harmful air quality is found in the workplace, particularly in the industrial sector.

The environmental health impacts of exposure to toxics can range from consumption of chemical and pathogen contaminated food to the use of poisonous consumer products to living or working in areas impacted by polluting industries and transportation.  Many of the world’s most polluted places are located in highly industrialized areas in impoverished communities.  And the legacy of past industrial or toxics use practices can have devastating health impacts for decades to come.  Although the Green Chemistry movement has been growing tremendously in Europe and is finally gaining ground in the U.S. and Canada, the effort to use less toxic chemicals in product manufacturing is far from commonplace.  The cost of going green in product manufacturing and the lack of strong toxics use reduction laws and tariffs are the major impediments to global progress on toxics use reduction.

Progress on environmental issues is inextricably tied to public health.  Communicating environmental issues in the terms of public health impacts is critical to achieving success.  The reality is that far more people are concerned about their health and the health of their families than the impacts of pollution or habitat loss on ecosystem health.

Health + The Environment

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Every year, an estimated 800,000 people die prematurely from lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases caused by outdoor air pollution. (World Bank)

3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease. (World Health Organization)

The global warming that has occurred since the 1970s was causing over 140 000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004. (World Health Organization)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Mark Gold (Los Angeles, USA), President, Heal The Bay