Environmental Health


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Environmental health is the concept that considers all the physical, biological and chemical factors found in the environment as they affect human health and behavior.

The WHO’s definition of environmental health provides more detail: “Environmental health refers to the state of all the physical, biological and chemical factors external to a person, and all related factors that impact human behaviors. It comprises the assessment and control of these factors in an effort to prevent them from causing disease; and the creation of environments that promote and support human health and well-being”.1

  • Components of Environmental Health

 There are 3 major components to environmental health, namely:

    •  Air Quality – the state of the air around us, both indoors or outdoors (ambient air)
    •  Water Quality – the measure of how suitable available water is for a particular use, depending on its specific physical, biological and chemical characteristics.
    •  Soil Quality – the ability of soil in any particular area to perform functions critical to the needs of the people dependent upon it, not limited to sustaining agricultural systems.
  • Issues Related to Environmental Health

The following sub-components or issues related to environmental health3 are typically grouped by EH practitioners and professionals according to their own programs and practices to fall under the umbrella of any of the 3 major components listed above:

    • Disasters & Emergencies – the provision of services that are critical to the protection and well-being of affected populations, with emphasis on preventing and controlling disease and further injury.
    • Disease Control – the control, eradication, elimination and prevention of re-emergence of infectious diseases in a defined geographical area through deliberate measures.
    • Food Hygiene – the conditions and measures needed to make sure the food that we eat are kept safe from contamination at any point during harvest or slaughter, processing or manufacturing, storage, distribution, transport and preparation in order to prevent the occurrence of food-borne diseases.
    • Healthy Housing – raising awareness to the many new ways housing developments can be done while taking into consideration energy conservation, climate change, rapid urban population growth as well as preventing homelessness and slum dwelling
    • Institutional Hygiene & Sanitation – the establishment and monitoring of hygiene requirements for schools, offices, prisons, clinics and places of worship
    • Land & Soil Management – the determination of soil types and characteristics for the sole purpose of deciding how best to use the land and how to conserve and protect it at the same time.
    • Noise Control – measures taken to mitigate the impact of indoor or outdoor noise that affect the health of the populations residing in particular areas, usually in an urban setting, i.e. roadway noise, aircraft noise, amplified sounds in entertainment venues, etc.
    • OccupationalHealth & Safety – practices that ensure the health, safety and welfare of people in a work environment.
    • Research – to tirelessly study how the changing environment affects human populations so that we can adapt accordingly and continue to promote healthier lives.
    • Vector Control – methods that limit or eradicate birds, insects, arthropods or mammals (vectors) that carry and transmit disease-carrying pathogens).
    • Waste Management – the monitoring and regulation of the collection, transport, treatment and final disposal of waste.
    • Water Resources Management – the planning, development, distribution and management of water resources to ensure optimum usage.

Whether directly or indirectly, all these issues revolve around, and are established as a means to, address environmental hazards.

Environmental Hazards

An environmental hazard is an event, a state or a substance, either natural or man-made, that can potentially threaten its surroundings in such a way as to affect the health of the people in the vicinity and the overall ability of said environment to sustain healthful living.

  • Types of Environmental Hazards

    • Physical Hazardsare either those that are man-made or those that result from natural weather events. These include noise, vibrations, radiation, extreme temperatures, asbestos, poisonous plants etc.
    • Chemical Hazards–are substances that cause health problems when ingested, inhaled or applied to the skin.
    • Biological Hazards–are disease-causing microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, spores, viruses and biotoxins.

Both longstanding and emerging environmental hazards are at the core of the considerable burden of death, disability and death all over the world, particularly in under-developed countries. This translates to nearly 35% of all the death and disease in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, or 25% globally and includes many forms of environmental hazards in the home, at work and the community. These deaths have been largely attributed to:

    • Poor water quality/availability/sanitation
    • Poor ambient air/indoor air quality
    • Toxic substances
    • Vector-borne diseases
    • Global changes in the environment

Below are the most significant deaths from conditions and diseases that have a strong environmental component to them as reported globally:

    • Climate change - Extreme weather events changed long-established patterns of disease and affected agricultural production. These equate to an estimated 150,000 deaths annually.
    • Indoor smoke – Every year, respiratory diseases from using solid fuels like wood and charcoal for cooking and heating homes cause the death of an estimated 1.6 million people
    • Lead exposure – Over 230,000 people die annually from exposure to lead and about 1/3 of all children globally suffer from cognitive damage. About 97% of those affected are from developing countries.
    • Road traffic – Low and middle income countries suffer from 90% of the 1.2 million deaths from road accidents. Key risk factors include degraded rural and urban roadways particularly for cyclist and pedestrians.
    •  Toxic chemicals – Each year, accidental poisoning accounts for some 355,000 deaths globally, with 2/3 of this number occurring in developing countries. Said poisoning incidents have been connected to exposure to and the inappropriate use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in domestic and work environments.
    • Unsafe water - An estimated 1.7 million people die annually from diarrheal diseases resulting from poor water sanitation.
    • Urban air pollution – Health conditions resulting from energy production, vehicle exhaust fumes and industrial emissions kill approximately 800,000 people annually.
    • Vectors - Malaria is responsible for 1.2 million deaths annually, mostly African children below 5 years of age. A host of environmental hazards contribute to this situation, namely: inadequate housing, poorly designed water systems and irrigation, poor waste disposal, poor water storage, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and generally poor hygiene.
  • Emerging Issues and Future Trends

The poor countries of today can expect to see a surge of population growth in their urban areas in the next 30 years. This will result to rapid and unplanned urban development. This kind of development has been shown as unsustainable and will make them the new key areas of interest for emerging environmental health hazards.4

    •  Diminishing space – less space for walking and recreation activities, resulting to more sedentary lifestyles. Physical inactivity is responsible for 1.9 million deaths from heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
    • Increasing production and usage of older and newer chemicals – to support the expected surge in agricultural and industrial production. Many of these chemicals are already banned in more developed countries. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) estimates that by 2020, the global output of chemicals will be 85% higher than it was 25 years ago in 1995. This will result to an increase in the overall environmental health risks in these countries from chemical hazards.
    •  Increasing air, water and soil pollution – this is already happening in developing countries. Pulp & paper plants, mining, tanning operations, unsustainable farming and fishing practices, and other industrial processes are happening at rates way in excess of those human health can tolerate.
    • Climate-change impacts – the demand for energy sources has stressed global ecosystems to levels that the natural mechanisms which control and regulate climate don’t always work anymore. As a result of these extreme weather events, the normal patterns of vector-borne diseases have been disrupted. This and other consequences of climate change are responsible for over 150,000 deaths annually and this number is only expected to go up in the future.
    • Loss of bio-diversity – genetic resources for future crops, food production and development of medicines are depleted. This loss of bio-diversity also makes the transmission of diseases within animal populations more unstable, and with these same animal populations being the source of pathogens affecting humans, that link is rendered more unstable as well, and as such more unpredictable.

Global Responsibility for Environmental Health

    • World Health Organization (WHO) Environmental Health– Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the WHO is manned by 7000 dedicated individuals in 150 countries worldwide. They work with governments and other partners in the fight against diseases by ensuring the safety of the water that people drink, the air that they breathe, the food that they eat and the medicines/vaccines that they need.
    • World Library of Toxicology (WLT)This is a (free) global web portal for the public and the scientific communities to find links to various government and private organizations that are actively working to address public health, toxicology and environmental health issues all over the world. The goal is to make it easy for countries to share information about improving global public health.

Local Responsibility for Environmental Health

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Created in 1970, the agency’s mission is to protect human health by protecting the natural environment.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC)
    • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)– Their congressional mandate is to perform public health assessments of waste sites, health surveillance, respond to release of hazardous substances and teach about hazardous substances.
    • National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH)– This agency leads the nation in promoting health and quality of life by the control and prevention of diseases, disabilities, birth defects or deaths that result from environmental health hazards that people encounter. The NCEH operates under the CDC umbrella.
    • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) – This agency conducts research and recommends steps to be taken to prevent work-related illnesses and injuries. They promote health and safe workplaces through recommendations, interventions and building capacity. They also encourage collaborations with international organizations.
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) – With research being a critical sub-component of environmental health, the NIEHS focuses on understanding the influence the environment has on how human diseases develop and spread by using science, disease-centric research, extensive training on multiple disciplines and global environmental health. They also host the NTP (National Toxicology Program). Their website offers a wealth of information about community outreach, environmental justice and environmental health issues for children.
    • National Library of Medicine (NLM) Environmental Health & Toxicology – The NLM is a veritable portal for anything environmental health and toxicology-related. These include access to the TOXNET (Toxicology Data Network), databases, bibliographies, tutorials, and other scientific and consumer-oriented resources related to environmental health and toxicology.
    • USGS Environmental Health – They focus on the interface between the environment and human health, where the interaction of people with other living organisms and the environment either increase or decrease the risk of infectious and toxicologic disease. Their programs include Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology.
    • USGS Human Health – They provide information about natural hazards, ecosystems and environmental contributors to human health and disease.

Protection of Environmental Health

Environmental protection is the practice of protecting our natural environment from hazards, either natural or man-made that may cause harm to it, and consequently to the human race. This practice can be carried out on governmental, organizational or individual levels.

Rapid population growth, industrialization, technology and the pressures of over-consumption all together degrade the biophysical environment, some beyond recovery. Fortunately for future generations, this decline was realized by some environmentally-aware individuals with enough foresight to begin raising awareness in their own little niches of the world.

Today, certain academic institutions even offer programs such as environmental engineering, environmental management and environmental studies, all geared towards protecting the environment.

For any environmental protection program to prosper, it is critical that it has a strong foundation of proper legislation, education and ethics as these factors will determine and drive environmental decisions.

  • Levels of Environmental Protection Programs

    • International Environmental Agreements – When the vulnerable environmental resources are impacted by human activities across countries, said countries develop agreements to prevent further damage or to manage the effects of such human activities. These agreements usually impact such environmental factors as climate, pollution of rivers and oceans and air pollution. Some of these agreements are in principle only - to be used as guidelines; others are legally binding.
    • Ecosystem Approach – In decision-making, this approach takes into consideration the complex interrelationships within entire ecosystems instead of simply responding to challenges and other issues. All the planning will be a collaboration of all stakeholders coming from government, industry, the community and environmental groups.
    • Voluntary Environmental Agreements – This is the platform for private companies to contribute to the global effort on environmental protection. In industrialized countries, private corporations enter into these agreements and strive to go beyond what regulatory standards require of them, in full support of developing best environmental practices. In developing countries like most in Latin America, these agreements are largely used to exact compliance to mandatory regulations.
  • Environmental Monitoring & Testing

Environmental monitoring is the sampling of air, water, soil and biota in a systematic manner for purposes of observing and studying the environment5. From these samples, it can be determined if there are any biological, chemical or physical hazards that can adversely affect habitats and natural ecosystems such as to cause disease to existing populations both human and non-human. The EPA has in place various environmental monitoring programs that are but a handful of what’s out there today.

To protect the environment is to protect the very lifestyle our generation has grown accustomed to, and while there exist the many reputable and reliable government and non-government agencies and organizations that tackle environmental health hazards on a global scale, we can all do our little parts by taking care of those same environmental hazards in our home and our community.

Many corporations and private organizations that undertake their own environmental monitoring programs make use of some very specific environmental hazard tests that are readily available, depending on the nature of their operations. These tests offer a convenient way for these organizations to perform the tests required of them when and where they are needed; i.e. testing for mold or testing for asbestos, etc. There are even household tests these days that home owners can initiate by themselves without having to ask local authorities to do it for them. We can now test for lead in water, on specific surfaces in our home, and in paint products. Even radon tests which ordinary moms would not even consider in the past are available now. We have the ability to keep our homes safe from many environmental hazards, like heavy metals and toxic fumes, and to perform tests that were not previously available to us.

The subsequent sections on Air Quality, Water Quality and Soil Quality will provide more detailed information on environmental pollutants/contaminants; heavy metal exposure, pesticides and other chemicals; biological contaminants; available tests and how they are done; specific health concerns and their symptoms and treatment options.






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