Focus: Environmental degradation is contributing to health threats worldwide

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Focus: Environmental degradation is contributing to health threats worldwide


reviews important findings in the
new World Resources

World Resources In the poorest regions of the world an estimated one in five children will not live to see their fifth birthday, primarily because of environment-related diseases. This tragedy translates into 11 million childhood deaths a year worldwide - equal to the combined populations of Norway and Switzerland - mostly due to malaria, acute respiratory infections or diarrhoea, all illnesses that are largely preventable.

These are among the many sobering findings of a new report on health and the environment worldwide, released jointly on 1 May by the World Resources Institute, UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank.

Environmental Change and Human Health, a special section of World Resources 1998-99, describes how preventable illnesses and premature deaths are still occurring in shockingly large numbers, even though vast improvements in human health globally over the past decades mean millions of people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Consider the following:

- Almost 4 million children die each year of acute respiratory infections linked to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

- Malaria claims 1 to 3 million lives a year, most of them children.

- Another 3 million children die each year of diarrhoeal diseases related to a lack of clean water and sanitation.

- Cholera, long banished from Latin America, reappeared in 1997 claiming some 11,000 lives and causing economic impacts worth an estimated $200 million in Peru alone.

- In developing countries there may be as many as 3.5 million to 5 million acute pesticide poisonings per year, with millions more people experiencing lower but still dangerous exposures.

While most of these statistics assess conditions in the developing world, environmental threats to health in the industrialized nations are also of concern. In the wealthier countries these stem both from industrial pollution, including air pollution and toxic wastes, and biological sources such as food-borne disease. Indeed:

- More than 100 million people in Europe and North America are still exposed to unsafe air with some air pollutants proving more difficult to control than expected.

- The incidence of asthma is rising dramatically throughout the developed world and environmental factors appear to be at least partly to blame.

- The excessive use of fertilizers is disrupting coastal ecosystems, leading to harmful algal blooms and fish deaths.

- Biological contamination is not a thing of the past as demonstrated by the 1993 outbreak of crytosporidium in the United States city of Milwaukee.

- Increasing international travel and trade is providing new opportunities for the spread or re-emergence of infectious diseases. In the past two decades, some 30 'new' such diseases have appeared, including Lyme disease and rare haemorraghic fevers such as Ebola, while other previously controlled ones have returned with a vengeance.

Because many of the environmental conditions that impact health are avoidable, prevention of health problems through environmental management, rather than simply treating diseases and ailments after they have occurred, is the salient message of the environment and health section of World Resources 1998-99. It offers governments, development agencies, policy-making groups, private businesses, communities and individuals worldwide strategies to slow or even halt further environmental deterioration, averting significant ecological disruption and its possible accompanying economic impacts.

Most significantly, the report underlines how the burden of preventable, environment-related illness is borne disproportionately by the poor living in both developed and developing countries. Indeed, 1.3 billion of the 'poorest poor', that one-fifth of the world's population living on less than $1 a day and increasingly unable to secure adequate food, water, clothing, shelter and health care, is especially vulnerable to environmental threats. The report documents an emerging 'health gap' in which preventable diseases are concentrated among the poorest segments of society, leading to what is described as 'epidemiologic polarization'.

The biennial World Resources report is a comprehensive report on a range of global environmental trends. The special environment and health section also has short, descriptive boxes on key problems including tuberculosis, cholera, dengue fever, asthma, lead poisoning, malaria in the Brazilian Amazon and air pollution in Asia, together with guest commentaries on a variety of related topics such as environmental justice. World Resources 1998-99 also includes a new section on global environment trends which highlights environmental issues in short, easy-to-read stories, as well as an extensive data section with new statistics on health, biodiversity, watersheds and other related topics.

World Resources 1998-99, edited by Leslie Roberts and published by Oxford University Press, is available from booksellers or from SMI (P.O. Box 119, Stevenage, Herts SG1 4TP, United Kingdom), price $24.95.

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