Shanghai morning. Photo: Robert S. Donovan
“This article is part of UNU’s Rio+20 series, featuring research or commentary on the conference’s themes
of green economy, poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.”
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According to the WHO (1993), environmental health “comprises those aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined by physical, chemical, biological, social, and psychosocial factors in the environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing, correcting, controlling, and preventing those factors in the environment that can potentially affect adversely the health of present and future generations”.
Since environmental health aims to protect not only present but also future generations, is very much in line with the concept of sustainable development, which is defined by the Brundtland Report as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This link between environmental health and sustainable development needs to be emphasized, and national and global policies in these areas should be complementary and mutually beneficial.
A healthy population is a prerequisite for a productive and creative society, which in turn is needed to sustain national development. Uncontrolled and unsustainable development that overexploits the natural environment and its resources, however, is a major cause of environmental health problems.
The unimpeded consumption of fossil fuel reserves, for example, has led to serious worldwide air pollution in megacities, which causes or exacerbates severe respiratory and cardiovascular health problems. This over-consumption of fossil fuels also has led to excess greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change, which has in turn results in health-related problems such as the increased incidence of heat stress and of vector-borne and water-borne diseases.
Environmental health issues transcend national boundaries, and thus are global concerns. Global environmental disruptions and changes have impacted human health. The impact can be both acute in nature, such as water-borne diseases resulting from poor sanitation, as well as chronic, such as skin cancers from exposure to arsenic in groundwater or exposure to excess ultraviolet light (owing to depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer).
Although the relationship between the environment and human health has been recognized since the mid-1970s, environmental health issues continue to challenge human populations. Dynamic changes in the human population, depletion of natural resources and disruption of ecosystems are beginning to have a serious impact on human health, and are changing morbidity and mortality trends.
Some traditional environmental health issues are being overcome through technology, organized community initiatives, health promotion and behavioural change. Global economic development has gone some way in alleviating health problems related to poor sanitation (such as water-borne and food-borne diseases). But some glaring deficiencies in health remain, especially in the developing world.
Furthermore, new health issues have emerged. According to the WHO (2009), the five leading environmental health risks are unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene; indoor smoke from solid fuels; lead exposure; urban outdoor air pollution; and global climate change.
In 2002, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggested that poor environmental quality is directly responsible for some 25 percent of preventable ill health worldwide (with diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections heading the list). Globally, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while 2.6 billion people lack proper sanitation (WHO and UNICEF, 2005).
Worldwide, about 1.5 million deaths per year from diarrhoeal diseases are attributable to environmental factors of contaminated water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. Another 1.5 million deaths annually from respiratory infections are mainly attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution (Pruss-Ustun and Corvalan, 2006).
Although we are already seeing grave effects on current populations, the irony is that the most serious impacts of today’s pollution will be on future generations. Many of these chronic health effects may take 20 to 50 years, or even longer, to manifest themselves in their entirety. Thus, in their quest for rapid development, parents of today are polluting and harming their own children and grandchildren.
The question thus becomes: How can we promote sustainable development and minimize such health effects?
To make development sustainable in the long run, environmental conservation and environmental health governance should be incorporated into national development plans in a complementary and integrated way. Each nation will have to define its various national economic, agricultural, industrial, environmental, energy and social policies. These national policies will drive national development plans.
For example, if a country aspires to be an industrialized country, it must have a well-defined energy policy, because no country can develop its industrial infrastructure without an adequate and efficient energy supply. Most countries would have an energy policy that sources supplies from a mix comprising fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
An appropriate energy policy would allow a country to spearhead its national development plans, which may include agricultural expansion, industrialization, commercialization, education, communication, health and transportation infrastructures. All these will bring positive or beneficial outcomes to society, such as infrastructural growth, improved communication and transport, and increased employment, among others.
As nations turn to more sustainable paths to development, improvements will be made in environmental health. Of course, there may continue to be some negative or undesirable outcomes — such as the continuing depletion of natural resources and pollution. In order for the overall national development plans to be sustainable, the positive outcomes need to be maximized while the negative outcomes are minimized.