Worldchanging guest writers David Zaks and Chad Monfreda are graduate research assistants at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison where they study how human activities affect our planet.
We usually picture environmental protection as people protecting nature. But reality is that the environment also protects us. That's the take home point from a new report from the World Health Organization titled Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments.
In places where the environment is stressed, people become less healthy. An unhealthy environment is responsible for one-quarter of the global disease burden and one-third of the burden among children. (Broadly speaking, the environment includes everything, so the study restricted itself to risk factors amenable to environmental management. Therefore things like air pollution, housing, and land-use patterns are considered; smoking, diet, and natural biological agents are not.)
The environmental disease burden is greatest in developing countries.
On average, children in developing countries lost 8-times more healthy life years than their counterparts in developed countries from environmentally-related diseases. For some key diseases, the gap is far greater.
The gap is especially big for infectious disease, with a 15-times greater risk in developing countries than developed ones. The design of cities and towns in the developed world, however, creates its own set of problems. The environmental risk factor in the developed countries, for example, is 7-times greater for cardiovascular disease and 4-times greater for cancer.
Previous studies estimated the aggregate disease burden from risk factors like air pollution and dirty drinking water, but this report is the first to link environmental risks to more than 80 specific diseases and injuries. Fortunately, simple measures can reduce the environmental risk of even the most widespread illnesses:
Diarrhoea. An estimated 94% of the diarrhoeal burden of disease is attributable to environment, and associated with risk factors such as unsafe drinking-water and poor sanitation and hygiene.
A one-size-fits-all approach isn't available yet, but many low-tech methods such as the watercone, lifestraw, fog-collectors, water bottles+sun, are currently available. In the near future, more exotic solutions like nanotechnology may also play a role in providing clean water.
Lower respiratory infections. These are associated with indoor air pollution related largely to household solid fuel use and possibly to second-hand tobacco smoke, as well as to outdoor air pollution. In developed countries, an estimated 20% of such infections are attributable to environmental causes, rising to 42% in developing countries.
In developing countries, the food that nourishes you might also make you sick if it is cooked with an inefficient wood-burning stove. An increasing number of cleaner and more efficient stoves are becoming available that reduce both household airborne particulate matter and the amount of biomass that needs to be harvested to fuel the stove.
Malaria. The proportion of malaria attributable to modifiable environmental factors (42%) is associated with policies and practices regarding land use, deforestation, water resource management, settlement siting and modified house design, e.g. improved drainage.
Environmental management can decrease the risk of malaria by reducing the amount of habitat for mosquitoes, reducing mosquito populations, or even breeding mosquitoes that are immune to the malaria parasite.
Not only are there health benefits from effective environmental management, but there are economic benefits as well. These benefits include gains in economic productivity as well as savings in health-care costs and healthy life years lost. The benefits of taking action to improve health were estimated to outweigh costs by an 8:1 ratio.
Health is a crucial component in sustainable development. A sick child cannot obtain a proper education, a mother with respiratory disease cannot care for her children, and a family too sick to work cannot provide for itself. This report highlights the intersection of environment and health, and how it can act as a wedge in poverty alleviation in the global South.
Thanks for pointing to more proof that individual communities have much to gain (and everything to lose) from stewardship of their environment. I'm reminded of the concept of environmental income, whereby productive ecosystems - sustainably managed - can be a route out of poverty for many low-income communities, just as those well-managed ecosystems could help on health issues. Unfortunatly, an array of governance failures prevents good stewardship. These failures range from political exclusion to lack of legal ownership over assets. Until the poor have a seat at the table and ownership over their lands, they will be subject to others' degradation of their #1 asset - their environment. What does that mean? Not to be too negative, but "poverty and health trap" comes to mind. Sad.