SEATTLE — On May 27, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) released its report “Healthy Environment, Healthy People,” which highlights the important connection between the environment and public health. The report explains that environmental degradation has led to increases in non-communicable diseases and pollution-related deaths. It also proposes a number of environmental solutions that can significantly improve global public health.
The report estimates that environmental degradation causes “174–234 times as many premature deaths as occur in conflicts annually.” For example, 26 percent of child deaths under the age of five globally are linked to environmental factors. This troubling phenomenon will likely only get worse as climate change increasingly threatens oceans, biodiversity and access to clean water. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that under a “base case socioeconomic scenario” an additional 250,000 deaths could occur each year between 2030 and 2050 as a result of climate change.
There are a number of environmental factors that directly contribute to such high death tolls. Air pollution causes many health complications, especially air pollution from wood-burning stoves. Such stoves produce noxious fumes that millions of people inhale while cooking. Additionally, lack of clean water leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths from diarrheal diseases every year. Finally, exposure to lead and mercury poisoning causes well over half a million deaths annually. This exposure occurs in large part because most countries (especially in the developing world) do not have limits on lead in paint, so peeling paint can be eaten by children or contaminate groundwater.
Fortunately, the report suggests several high-impact solutions to these environmental problems. They take the form of four integrated approaches: detoxify, decarbonize, decouple resource use and change lifestyles, and enhance ecosystem resilience and protection of the planet’s natural systems.
“Detoxifying” entails removing harmful substances from environments in which people live and work. This includes limiting product lead and mercury levels.
“Decarbonizing” decreases the use of fossil fuels and encourages a global shift to more renewable sources of energy. Clean energy reduces future threats of severe weather patterns, declining biodiversity and rising pollution-related illnesses.
In addition, “decoupling resource use” encourages economies to reduce their waste and use the resources they have more efficiently. This action would reduce pollution and environmental degradation, which reside at the heart of the public health issues the report outlined.
Finally, “enhancing ecosystem resilience” entails preparing countries to deal with future threats to the environment. This program would encourage countries to invest in conservation programs to protect genetic diversity and marine biodiversity, increase environmental restoration projects and decrease the pressures that the livestock and logging industries put on the planet.
Perhaps seen as broad and multi-faceted, these solutions also present a long-term global approach to solving the environmental issues which underlie serious public health concerns. In the words of UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner: “A healthier planet is a rising tide that lifts all boats, including human health, but also economies and societies… The world [should focus]on pathways to ensure that the environment sustains human health rather than threatening it.”
– Steffen Seitz