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What is environmental health and why is it important?

April 19, 2022 - 13 min read

young-women-breathes-in-field-of-yellow-flowers - Environmental health

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What is environmental health?

5 areas of environmental health and safety

Why is environmental health important?

How can the environment affect our health?

What can you do to help?

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 physical and mental health.

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

Just as the food we eat impacts our mental and physical health, the state of the planet does, too. Environmental health looks at various aspects of our environment, including pollution, access to safe drinking water, and infrastructure issues that impact people's health.

Let's look at these and other environmental health examples and what you can do to help.

What is environmental health? 

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 mental well-being and physical health remain intact.

inclusive-leadership-report-cta

5 areas of environmental health and safety

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

The following five key health topics are integral to supporting human life and building healthier environments.

  1. Water and sanitation
  2. Chemicals and radiation
  3. Air pollution
  4. Built environments
  5. Climate change

1. Water and sanitation

Roughly 784 million people are still without access to clean drinking water. Lack of access to safe water is a huge health concern for humans and can negatively affect the environment as people take drastic action 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. 

Pesticides, for example, 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

Environmental exposures to poisonous gases are harmful to plant life, animal life, and human respiratory systems. Some leading sources of air pollution include:

  • Power plants and factories
  • The burning of fossil fuels
  • Industrial waste
  • Natural disasters like volcano eruptions and wildfires

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

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 in the 21st century, climate change disrupts the natural world in various dangerous ways. Natural disasters also fall into this category. 

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 years, driven by climate change and more extreme weather.

climate-change-poster-environmental-health

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 safety and shelter, are provided and maintained, length and quality of life increase. 

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.

person-near-scenic-lake-environmental-health

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 specific 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.

By reducing industrial emissions and waste, organizations can vastly improve environmental health and reduce their impact on global warming.

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 ways that 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. 

And the effects or not felt evenly across the globe. 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.

2. Increased risk of waterborne diseases

Cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio can all be transmitted by poor water and sanitation.

Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

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

3. Danger from natural disasters

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

hand-holding-dry-clay-from-drought-environmental-health

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 optimally. Every human has a right to live in an environment that supports their health, not degrades it.

What can you do to help?

Thankfully, many industries are taking steps to reduce their air pollution emissions. More major businesses are embracing clean energy generated from solar and wind instead of 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 millions of electric batteries for future cars.

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

We can all take actionable steps as individuals to help improve our 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. 

planting-vegetable-garden-environmental-health

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.

With this growing wellness trend, you'll simultaneously advocate for your health and your environment.

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 your products 

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 April 19, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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