What is Environmental Health?

Environmental health entails grasping the effects of environment and human-made vulnerabilities/ hazards and insulation of human health and environmental systems from these hazards. This involves examining and evaluating the effects of chemicals made by humans on human health or wildlife and how the ecological systems impact the spread of illnesses. It can include everything from managing the use of pesticides to the quality of drywall used in construction.

It is a healthcare area that is gaining increasing attention around the world as there are more studies proving that the impact of environmental health extends beyond the individual and can determine the cost of public health care and the health of the local economy. In short, environmental health is the study of how environmental factors can harm human health and how we can identify and control such effects.

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO),

“Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health.

It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.”

When researchers and monitors assess the environmental health of a person or community, they are looking at how external elements are impacting the mental, emotional and physical health of the individual and at large. They can come in to do assessments that are focused on decreasing epidemics or childhood morbidity, as well as to improve the overall preventative healthcare measures in the area.

Environmental health regulations can extend to cover housing, transportation, food and water management as well. There is not one aspect of life that is not covered by environmental health as it recognizes the interrelation of all areas of economy and community on a person’s health state.

Kinds of Environmental Hazards

Humans stumble across numerous environmental hazards every single day. To better understand environmental health, let’s classify them into four categories:

1. Biological hazards

Biological hazards emanate from environmental relations between organisms. Some examples of biological hazards include bacteria, viruses, fungi, spores, pathogenic micro-organisms, tuberculosis, malaria and so on.

When these diseases and pathogens are transmitted between two or more organisms, we call it an infectious disease. The real reason humans suffer from these pathogens and diseases is that they are being infested by other organisms, which is a natural process, but at the same time hazardous.

2. Physical hazards

These are physical processes that happen naturally in the environment, for example, natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts, landslides, blizzards, and tornadoes. Physical hazards are considered secret events, but not all.

For instance, a few like UV radiation are openly happening each day. Ultraviolet radiation is categorized as hazardous since too much exposure to it destroys the DNA and triggers health complications in humans, such as cataracts and skin cancer.

3. Chemical hazards

They occur in ecological systems in two ways; human-made or natural.  Examples of naturally occurring chemical hazards include mercury and lead, which are considered heavy metals. Human-made chemical hazards encompass lots of synthetic chemicals humans produce, such as pesticides, plastics, and disinfectants.

A few organisms even generate natural chemicals, which are hazardous to the environment, for instance, elements contained in peanuts and dairy that trigger allergic reactions to humans.

4. Cultural hazards

They are sometimes referred to as social hazards. They originate from your locality, behavioral choices, occupation, and social-economic status. Examples of cultural hazards include cigarette smoking, which is detrimental to human health. Cigarette smoking is considered a behavior choice.

If you reside in a neighborhood full of criminal activities, it is classified as a hazard-based on your locality. In equal measure, your diet choice, workout habits, and main means of transportation all impact your overall health and the health of the ecological system around you.

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Critical Issues Related to Environmental Health

Healthier environments could prevent almost one-quarter of the global burden of disease. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the delicate relationship between people and our planet.Adequate water, clean air, sound agricultural practices, a stable climate, sanitation and hygiene, healthy and safe workplaces, safe use of chemicals, protection from radiation, health-supportive cities and built environments, and a preserved nature are all prerequisites for good health. Environmental health addresses all human health-related issues, which include:-

1. Handling Issues of Disease Control

Disease mitigation and control is one main aspect affecting environmental health. This can be paraphrased as assisting in building up or improve waste management systems to prevent the possibility of waste polluting drinking water sources or triggering the spread of illnesses.

In parts of the globe that industrialization is revolutionizing the local community’s living standards, education programs might be initiated that display acts of public health hygiene. The materials and techniques related to the progress of industry are also linked to the growth of infectious diseases if individuals that live there are not in sync with the requirements of proper hygiene and handling of waste items.

2. Food Management

Food management is a well-known issue that affects environmental health. Food management regulations will concern everything from how a seed is harvested and prepared to what types of fertilizer and pesticides are used to nurture the crops to maturity.

The authorities will also examine processing, packaging and storage facilities for food products to ensure that all food items are safe for human consumption, and there is less risk for contamination or food spoilage.

In other scenarios, environmental health might also tackle the transportation requirement of food because the road or rail network in some countries may not be good enough to enable the prompt reach of food supplies to the population.

3. Water Quality Issues

Guaranteeing that portable or enough drinking water will be readily obtainable to the local community is yet another main aspect of environmental health. Environmental health campaigners will look to find ways of developing water reserves that can be wholly cushioned from the possibility of contamination. These environmental advocates not only look towards drinking and cooking water but making sure there is the availability of enough water for crop irrigation.

Another aspect of water control is to make sure that proper drainage systems are in place. Ensuring appropriate drainage is in place is due to health concerns that may be instigated by stagnant water and how it can contribute to the existence of diseases carried along by mosquitoes that commonly breed in stagnant water.

4. Housing and Transportation

Environmental health also looks at the quality and condition of transportation and housing. In recent times, an example of how environmental health helped to change and shape building policies is the focus on removing lead and asbestos from buildings.

Transportation can become a concern for environmental health if the local community isn’t connected to any form of public transportation or there is no sufficient infrastructure to enable them access opportunities and services that are in proximity to them.

5. Air Pollution

Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.

From smog hanging over cities to smoke inside the home, air pollution poses a major threat to health and climate. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

6. Climate Change

Climate change is impacting human lives and health in a variety of ways. It threatens the essential ingredients of good health – clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply, and safe shelter – and has the potential to undermine decades of progress in global health.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone. The direct damage costs to health is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion per year by 2030.

Areas with weak health infrastructure, mostly in developing countries, will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.

7. Chemicals Safety

Chemical Safety is achieved by undertaking all activities involving chemicals in such a way as to ensure the safety of human health and the environment. It covers all chemicals, natural and manufactured, and the full range of exposure situations from the natural presence of chemicals in the environment to their extraction or synthesis, industrial production, transport use and disposal.

Chemical safety has many scientific and technical components. Among these are toxicology, ecotoxicology and the process of chemical risk assessment, which requires detailed knowledge of exposure and of biological effects.

8. Children’s Environmental Health

In 2012, 1.7 million deaths in children under five were attributable to the environment. These included 570 000 deaths from respiratory infections, 361 000 deaths from diarrhea, 270 000 deaths from neonatal conditions, 200 000 deaths from malaria and 200 000 deaths from unintentional injuries as per WHO. Reducing environmental risks could prevent 1 in 4 child deaths.

Environmental risks have an impact on the health and development of children, from conception through childhood and adolescence and also into adulthood. The environment determines a child’s future: early life exposures impact adult health as fetal programming and early growth may be altered by environmental risk factors.

Children are particularly vulnerable to certain environmental risks, including air pollution, inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene; hazardous chemicals and waste, radiation; climate change, as well as emerging threats like e-waste. These are major contributors to childhood deaths, illnesses and disability.

Apart from the list above, environmental health also address issues related to:

  • Solid Waste Management which includes recycling facilities, landfills and composting.
  • Management of medical waste such as mitigation of dangerous materials from finding way to the ecological system.
  • Hazardous Materials Management.
  • Ultraviolet radiation, radiation and emergencies related to radiation
  • Occupational Health and promoting the improvement of working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene.

The Paris Agreement on climate change is, therefore, potentially the strongest health agreement of this century. WHO supports countries in assessing the health gains that would result from the implementation of the existing Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and the potential for larger gains from more ambitious climate action.

Climate Change and its Grave Impacts on the Immediate Environment

Environmental health also deals with aspects of climate change and how it impacts the environment. Climate change could cause:

Rising Temperatures

If climate change is not mitigated, temperatures could go way up, resulting in more heatwaves and fires, severe droughts and rains are likely to be intense when they finally come, and this could cause severe floods.

Rising Sea Levels

Many take seas and oceans for granted. They slow down climate change and absorb greenhouse gasses and heat, which could be detrimental to human health. This becomes more pronounced each day, and marine life could be impacted, and all kinds of life on the planet will be impacted in the near future.

Global Initiatives in Environmental Health

The World Health Organization spearheads the largest global environmental health initiative in existence. Their focus is primarily on the prevention of epidemics and to improve infant and child morbidity rates in developing countries through increasing the healthfulness of the environment of the community. They oversee projects that involve everything from vaccination programs to water processing plant construction.

Where there is a community, there is a need to examine the state of environmental health for that community and the individuals it supports. The impact of individual health is what determines the health of the country’s economy in all aspects.

Statistics are stark; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 12.6 million people died in 2012 due to working or living in an unhealthy environment. This figure represents 1 in 4 total worldwide deaths according to recent surveys by the same organization. Environmental health risk factors, for instance, water, air, climate change, ultraviolet rays, climate exposures, soil, and pollution, play a role in over 100 injuries and diseases.

By centering on minimizing environmental and social risk factors, close to a quarter of the world’s disease burden can be mitigated. Some classic examples of measures that will ensure environmental health is on par include excellent hygiene measures, boosting safe water storage, efficient and reliable administration of toxic compounds at home and workplace.

On top of that, affirmative action by sectors like agriculture, transport, and energy is needed promptly, in collaboration with the health sector, to deal with causes of social and environmental ill health that are out of reach of the health sector.

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