Creating a Healthier Environment

Geneva (GLOBE-Net) – Worldwide, 13 million deaths could be prevented every year by making environments healthier, estimates the World Health Organization (WHO). Poor air and water quality are the main culprits, and children in developing countries are most at risk. Encouragingly, the report indicates readily available clean energy and water purification technologies could have an immediate positive impact. The challenge is now to deploy these environmental solutions. Doing so will increase quality of life for those at risk and enhance overall global prosperity.

Last week, the WHO released its first ever country-by-country analyses of the impacts environmental factors have on health. The data show huge inequalities, as the worst affected countries are developing nations suffering from a lack of water and energy infrastructure. (To view the data, click here)

However, according to the WHO, the statistics demonstrate that “in every country, people’s health could be improved by reducing environmental risks including pollution, hazards in the work environment, UV radiation, noise, agricultural risks, climate and ecosystem change”. The more than thirteen million deaths worldwide that are preventable each year through healthier environments represent more than one third of the disease burden in some countries, estimates WHO.

The two most prominent environmental risk factors are unsafe water, including poor sanitation and hygiene; and indoor air pollution due to solid fuel (e.g. wood, charcoal, coal) for cooking. In twenty-three countries, these two issues are thought to cause more than 10% of total deaths.

The worst hit countries include Angola, Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as Afghanistan. Low income countries are the most affected, losing three times more healthy years of life per person than high income countries. Children under five are the primary victims, making up 74% of deaths due to diarrheas, disease and lower respiratory infections.

But even people in industrialized countries are exposed to environmental health risks. Among those nations with the best environmental conditions, almost one-sixth of disease could be prevented, estimates WHO. The organization asserts that efficient environmental interventions could significantly reduce cardiovascular disease and road traffic injuries.

In Canada, 36,000 deaths each year are estimated to be due to environmental factors, including 2,700 from levels of particulate matter in outdoor air, according to the WHO. Particulate matter is a key component of smog and in industrialized countries comes mainly from transportation and industrial emissions, as well as wood burning, dust erosion from wind, and ash from forest fires.

Deploying solutions

People in every country are exposed to a number of environmental factors that can affect health. These include large-scale and global environmental hazards such as climate change, ozone depletion, changes in freshwater resources, and stresses on agricultural production. They also encompass exposure to hazardous chemicals or pollution on the job, in public and in the household.

According to the WHO assessment, household exposures are particularly preventable, with targeted interventions available to sharply cut health risks and death. For example, switching from biomass fuel to natural gas or electricity for cooking, or installing proper ventilation could greatly improve indoor air quality for many in developing nations.

Community or national intervention is needed in other areas, including improved access to clean drinking water. Installing water treatment and distribution infrastructure could help millions avoid waterborne disease, and providing household water treatment technologies could provide similar relief where publicly funded water systems are not viable.

Energy policies also have a large impact, as coal and oil-fired generating stations produce significant amounts of air pollution, especially where emissions abatement equipment is not employed. The WHO estimates that reducing particulate matter air pollution could save 865,000 lives world wide per year.

The environmental conditions and related health impacts identified by the WHO necessitate sound policies set by state and local governments. Government support is necessary for large scale water or energy infrastructure projects that can enhance quality of life for entire communities. As well, government policies can guide transition to cleaner technologies and support industry or local efforts to improve the environment.

Governments lay the framework for action and may address key areas such as energy, but involving the private sector and the affected populations themselves is vital to providing clean air and water.

For micro-level interventions that improve the quality of air and water in the household, private sector technologies or services can help local people take control of their own environment. Developing cost-effective solutions and distributing them to those in need is a key role that industry can play.

For example, as part of a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project to earn carbon credits, Alcan provided solar cookers and pans to 1,000 rural Indonesian families in the country’s Banda Aceh region. The parabolic solar cookers harness solar energy to boil water, kill bacteria and cook food, reducing developing regions’ dependence on traditional sources of energy, such as firewood and fossil fuels.

A Kenyan company, Chardust Ltd., has created a viable business model by recycling dust from burnt wood into charcoal briquettes which burn cleanly. The business is providing jobs and economic growth while reducing deforestation and improving indoor air quality.

Other ventures are tackling the need for clean water. One corporate-led initiative plans to distribute a new water purification solution being designed especially for the developing world. The alliance between The Safe Water Network and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu is seeking to work with local communities to allow those in need to take control of the technology. The companies will explore models for deploying water purification solutions, including micro-enterprise programs that establish local water entrepreneurs.

One of the world’s most successful water treatment technologies, the Canadian-developed BioSand Filter, is based on a model of knowledge sharing that allows locals to construct and operate their own water filters.

Worldwide, many companies have made successful business ventures supplying technologies for desalination, reverse osmosis, and other water purification techniques to governments and other clients. Expanding deployment of these technologies could help reduce death and disease and lift millions out of poverty.

Considering environmental health in policy

Even in Canada, the health impacts of environmental policy are important to consider. Moves to eliminate lead in gasoline and reduce the sulphur content in transportation fuels are important steps that have had significant positive results. Further improvements in these areas are forthcoming.

When formulating a national climate change response, the positive health impacts of a shift away from fossil fuel dependence should not be overlooked. Rising temperatures are projected to aggravate existing health problems, and so reducing greenhouse gas emissions will come with co-benefits of reduced air pollution, decreased urban smog levels, and lower health care costs.

A recent study from Health Canada, Environment Canada and Toronto Public Health indicates that premature deaths and instances of disease will become much more common as the climate changes. The economic losses in terms of lost earning power and other costs currently top $1.5 billion and could rise as temperatures increase.

Both the WHO figures and Canada’s own studies suggest that the links between the environment and health are strong enough that they should be considered as key components of future energy, climate change, and transportation policies. The view of the environment as a separate entity must be abandoned; the environment is comprised of the natural systems we depend on for all aspects of our lives, and ensuring its quality is vital to preserving our future.

For More Information: World Health Organization

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