Environmental health and the work, well-being, and health of your team

November 3, 2021 - 20 min read

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What is environmental health?

6 areas of environmental health and safety

Why is environmental health important?

How can the environment affect our health?

What can you do to help?

Contribute to environmental health for your well-being

The reality of global warming is all around us. From melting ice caps to raging wildfires, it’s no secret that our actions have shaped the world we live in.

Whether it's our food choices or the production of plastic, we have drastically altered our natural environment.

But just as we affect the health of our surroundings, the environment affects our holistic wellness in return. 

As humans, we are interconnected with our environment. Our natural and built environment is more than just a place for us to live. The state of our world affects our health and well-being.

This important relationship between humans and our surroundings is called environmental health.

Let’s take a look at different environmental health examples and what you can do to help.

What is environmental health? 

The environmental health definition is relatively simple. Environmental health is a facet of public health that focuses on the relationship humans have with the environment. 

For us to maintain a good quality of life, there are certain environmental boxes that need ticking. Fresh air, clean water, shelter, and a stable climate are just a few requirements for human health that link directly to the environment. 

Environmental public health urges us to understand the connection between the environment’s health and our own. 

By looking after the health and safety of our environment, we can ensure that our own mental health and physical health remain intact. 

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6 areas of environmental health and safety

There are several environmental health issues that can negatively affect us.

The following six key health topics are integral to supporting human life and building healthier environments. This is what makes each of them so important to maintain.

Let’s break them down.

1. Water and sanitation

A shocking 784 million people are still without access to clean drinking water. Lack of access to fresh water is a huge health concern for humans and can negatively affect the environment as people take drastic action to try to secure a water source.

2. Chemicals and radiation

Toxic gases, pollutants, and radiation exist all around us. Yet, they have the potential to wreak havoc on the health of both humans and the environment. 

Chemicals such as pesticides put our food safety at risk. The health impacts of pesticides range from mild skin irritation to birth defects. 

As well as our food, pesticides expose farmworkers and their families to pesticide-induced diseases such as asthma and various cancers. An analysis of over 40 years of epidemiologic literature has found that exposure to agricultural pesticides increases brain cancer risk by up to 20%

3. Air pollution

Industrial factories and billions of cars are just two contributors to the earth’s declining air quality. About 85% of US energy comes from the industrial burning of fossil fuels, creating 50% of the pollution in America

Environmental exposures to poisonous gases cause degradation to: 

  • Plantlife 
  • Animals 
  • Human respiratory systems

Thankfully, many industries are taking steps to reduce their air pollution emissions. More major businesses are embracing clean energy generated from solar and wind as opposed to fossil fuels.

Some manufacturers are using technologies that destroy air pollution at the source before it enters the earth’s atmosphere. For example, by using regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs), factories can repurpose industrial waste heat to destroy pollutants.

The auto industry is also doing its part by increasing its recycling efforts. The world's automakers are investing in facilities to salvage old parts and recycle the millions of electric batteries used for the cars of the future.

Jaguar Land Rover has a project to recycle aluminum from scrapped vehicles, which could cut CO2 emissions from production by 26%.

4. Built environments

Shelter forms a large part of human health and safety. But too many built developments can harm the environment. 

A poorly designed built environment produces unnecessary waste. It also consumes excessive amounts of water and energy.

5. Climate change

Considered the top threat to humanity of the 21st century, climate change disrupts the natural world in a variety of dangerous ways. Natural disasters also fall into this category. 

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a disaster related to a weather, climate or water hazard occurred every day on average over the past 50 years. This has killed 115 people and caused $202 million in losses daily.

The threat of climate change is continuously increasing. According to the WMO, the number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the 50-year period, driven by climate change and more extreme weather.

Just one example of this is the threat of flooding. According to the World Resources Institute, the number of people harmed by floods will double worldwide by 2030. 147 million people will be hit by floods from rivers and coasts annually by the end of the decade, compared with 72 million people just 10 years ago.

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6. Surveillance activities

Human health surveillance is designed to evaluate health trends or toxic exposure rates within a certain geographical area and time period. It is a method for tracking public health patterns as impacted by the environment. 

Surveillance activities involve going out and looking for particular health concerns. This includes investigating and responding to diseases and screening populations for hazards. 

An example of this is water fingerprinting, a process in which vital biological and chemical information is detected and collected from water samples. Rather than relying on the collection of samples from individual volunteers or patients, researchers take samples from a wastewater treatment plant that represents an entire catchment population.

From this, researchers can assess the public health of a community. They can trace the source of pollution and wastewater inflow into drinking water sources. More recently, this technique has been used to monitor localized outbreaks of COVID-19.

Why is environmental health important? 

Healthy environments are inexplicably intertwined with human safety and emotional well-being. Here are four reasons why we need to monitor and take care of the planet.

1. Reduces risk of diseases

Over the past two years, we have seen the severe damage that harmful microbes and pathogens (such as the coronavirus pandemic) can cause. Environmental health awareness can prevent disease outbreaks and reduce the burden of disease.

2. Enhances quality and length of life

When all of the criteria for human life, such as food and shelter, are provided and maintained in a sustainable way, both the length and quality of life increase. 

Studies show that, in the long run, improvements in environmental quality can significantly increase life expectancy. 

One study examined the impact of environmental quality on life expectancy in 24 African countries. It found that an increase in environmental performance index (EPI) and ecosystem vitality (EV) increased the life expectancy of Africans by 0.137 and 0.1417 years, respectively.

Another report found that a child born in 2019 will face a world that is on average 4°C warmer by their 71st birthday. As global temperatures rise, food harvests will shrink, driving up food prices and threatening food security.

This puts future generations’ health and well-being under threat, from malnutrition and weak immune systems, to long term developmental problems.

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3. Increases biodiversity and habitat protection

In the year 2021 alone, the US official announced the extinction of more than 20 species. We need biodiversity for our ecosystems and animal kingdoms to thrive. By raising environmental health awareness, we can enforce better protection for the creatures and plants around us. 

4. Limits global warming

The gradual increase of global temperatures is not something we can outrun. But there are certain measures that we can put in place to slow it down and find solutions. 

Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. Just 20 fossil fuel companies can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.

To combat climate change, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets at the COP26. The goal is to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep global warming to below 1.5°C. 

The impacts of failing to limit warming to 1.5° C could be disastrous. Rising sea levels could impact 1 billion people by the year 2050. Heat waves will become more frequent and severe around the world, affecting hundreds of millions of people. And plants and animals are at risk of losing more than half of their habitats.

How can the environment affect our health?

If we want to survive and thrive as a species, it is vitally important that we tend to the environment’s needs just as much as our own. 

Here are just some of the ways in which environmental health hazards can trigger poor human health.

1. Respiratory diseases

Air-borne pollutants and toxins can filter into our lungs and cause severe respiratory diseases. Ensuring a high level of air quality will prevent these kinds of diseases. 

Just one example is the pollution from freight traffic. In urban areas across the US, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color experience an average of 28% more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution than higher-income and majority-white neighborhoods. 

Close proximity to commuter traffic and heavy-duty trucks shows how environmental health has an immediate effect on the health of community members. It also highlights the connections between racial injustice and the environment.

2. Increased risk of waterborne diseases

People living in low-income communities are most at risk for infectious diseases, especially water borne diseases.

Without access to clean water, marginalized communities cannot maintain an optimal hygiene level. This makes them especially vulnerable to infectious diseases. 

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.

Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

3. Danger from natural disasters

Even the healthiest environment cannot escape the occasional natural disaster. But environmental health can reduce their impact significantly.

Natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and tornadoes can completely destroy landscapes and cause structural changes to ecosystems. Wildlife can be killed directly from force, or through changes in habitat and food availability. Water quality is impacted when sewage treatment facilities flood and riverbanks erode during flash flood events.

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Natural disasters also put human lives at risk. Just one example is hurricane Ida, killing dozens and causing devastation in a number of states. The economic impact of the storm is estimated at $95 billion, making it the seventh costliest hurricane to hit the US since 2000.

Emergency preparedness for disasters like droughts, floods, and fires is key for health care and our survival in general.

4. Lack of nutrition

Lack of nutrition often looks like a lack of healthy and affordable grocery stores near homes. This is called a food desert.

Without proper access to nutrient-dense food, our bodily systems cannot function at an optimal level. Every human has a right to live in an environment that supports their health, not degrades it. 

What can you do to help?

There are many actionable steps we can all take toward achieving optimum environmental health. Here are just a few things you can do to help.

1. Reduce your carbon footprint 

You can drastically reduce the amount of carbon you contribute to the atmosphere by choosing methods of travel other than a car or airplane. If possible, reduce your carbon footprint by walking to work or riding your bike.

2. Reduce, reuse, recycle

The world is densely populated with industrial factories that pump harmful CO2 into the environment. Support the health of your environment by reusing the items you have and recycling wherever possible. 

3. Grow your own fruits and vegetables

By learning how to grow your own food, you will learn valuable life skills. It is also therapeutic and a great avenue of self care

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With this growing wellness trend, you’ll advocate for your own health and that of your environment simultaneously. 

4. Be conscious of the products you use

Many of the products we use were made in factories that exploit both humans and the environment. You can choose to fight against this by being more intentional about the products you use. 

Contribute to environmental health for your well-being 

Maintaining a healthy relationship with the environment is key to unlocking a stable, thriving future for all living things. 

Even though we may sometimes feel our efforts are inconsequential, every small behavioral change made for environmental justice contributes to the greater good of humanity. 

In addition to personal input, we need contributions toward environmental health from companies and businesses in positions of power. 

BetterUp offers business coaching tools and advice for organizations that want to instigate a healthy, forward-thinking company culture.

Contact BetterUp for a demo today, and start working toward a future in which everyone is happy, healthy, and safe.

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Published November 3, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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