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Analysis

Health Affectations of Environmental Risks

By Miriam Bello | Wed, 11/24/2021 - 17:11

For decades, environmental concerns have emerged over the impact that pollution could have on the population’s well-being, which can be reflected in several disabilities and even deaths. Despite calls to action, global consciousness and proper initiatives to counter pollution are still lacking.

More than 12 million people around the world die every year because they live or work in unhealthy environments, states WHO. Specifically, there are eight environmental factors that have a direct impact on health: chemical safety, air pollution, climate change and natural disasters, diseases caused by microbes, lack of access to healthcare, infrastructure issues, poor water quality and global environmental issues.

The study, “Climate Change Impacts and Implications for Global Health,” from the 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that poor environmental quality has its greatest impact on people whose health status is already at risk. Therefore, environmental health must address the societal and environmental factors that increase the likelihood of exposure and disease. Maintaining a healthy environment is essential for helping people to live longer and to enjoy a better quality of life. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services’ program Healthy People 2030, 23 percent of all deaths (and 26 percent of deaths among children aged five and younger) are entirely preventable casualties caused by environmental health problems.

Environmental Risk Factors

Environmental risk factors greatly determine one of many health outcomes and will manifest on different stages of life. Targeting the most influential factors can help to understand how these can affect the human body and its development. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) marked air quality, water quality and access and climate change as the major environmental determinants of health.

Air Quality

“Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health and is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths worldwide per year,” states the IJERPH. Reports of health symptoms and risk of mortality can be linked to particulate matter, lead, nitrogen and sulphur oxides. A reduction in air pollution is expected to cap the global burden from respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer.

Water Quality and Access

Contact with unsafe drinking or bathing water can have serious acute and long-term impacts on human health. Microbe contamination of groundwater due to sewage outfalls and high concentration of nutrients in marine and coastal waters due to agricultural runoff are among the most serious threats. The Health and Environment Organization states that poor sanitation and contaminated water are linked to disease transmission, causing diarrhea as well as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

Climate Change

Over the last 50 years, human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to trap additional heat in the lower atmosphere and affect the global climate. Climate change affects many of the social and environmental determinants of health due to effects on clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. Extreme heat, natural disasters, variable rainfall patterns and patterns of infection are among the most common threats to health, as they can derive in malnutrition, arthropod vector borne disease, morbidity and mortality from extreme weather events and diarrheal disease.

Health Affectations and Prevention

Environment-related health affectations can manifest differently. WHO’s study “Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments” from 2016 breaks down environmental burden effects into infectious and parasitic diseases, neonatal and nutritional conditions and noncommunicable diseases. Environmental risks can also be a cause of unintentional injuries and intentional injuries.

Infectious and Parasitic Diseases

Main risk factors for susceptibility to infectious diseases include a compromised immune system, malnutrition and environmental risk factors such as smoke from heating or cooking with biomass, living in crowded homes and exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.

The study “Environmental Effects on Parasitic Disease Transmission Exemplified by Schistosomiasis in Western China” by PNAS found that poor in-door and out-door air quality is closely related to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, respiratory disease and high rates of hospitalization. The long-term effects associated with air pollution include chronic asthma, pulmonary insufficiency, cardiovascular diseases and cardiovascular mortality.

In developing countries where people are still used to cooking with biomass, women seem to carry the highest risk for disease development due to their longer exposure to indoor air pollution.

Parasitic diseases manifest primarily on diarrheal diseases, which, according to WHO, are one of the main contributors to global child mortality, causing 20 percent of all deaths in children under five years. These diseases are closely related to infrastructure setups for safe water access to avoid food and drinkable water contamination.

Depending on the region, endemic infectious diseases will also target vulnerable populations. Dengue is among the most common of these ailments. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Health, its development is associated with the domestic urban environment, the habits of the population and the lack of basic services such as water supply, garbage collection and household waste.

Neonatal and Nutritional Conditions

WHO’s report on “The Impact of the Environment on Children’s Health” found that environmental conditions may increase the risk of premature birth and of infants being born too small for their gestational age, which are major risk factors for chronic respiratory disorders, neurodevelopmental behavioral consequences, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes and cancers. Low lung function resulting from environmental exposures during fetal development, infancy and early preschool years, may increase the risk of acute respiratory disease in childhood and impose a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory disease. Exposure to air pollution may also increase lifelong risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Prenatal and perinatal chemical exposure may contribute to the risk of childhood obesity.

An article by Global Health Action found that exposure to particle matter (PM) is strongly and consistently associated with post-neonatal respiratory mortality and less consistent with sudden infant death syndrome. Moreover, intra-uterine growth retardation and pre-term birth are associated with PM.

Occupational risks, chemicals, air pollution, water, sanitation and hygiene also collide to determine the future of an infant. If during pregnancy, a mother is unable to harmonize all of the above, the child’s vulnerability to develop a chronic disease late in life will increase.

Noncommunicable Diseases

Lung cancer is the most common environment-related disease due to poor air quality, followed closely by colon and rectum cancer, both of which can be attributable to low physical activity, according to the WHO.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists radiation and asbestos as two further potential environmental risk factors for this type of cancer. Environmental factors can also influence breast cancer, which, as colon and rectum cancer, presents low physical activity which can be influenced by the environment.

WHO also found that mental, behavioral and neurological disorders have a small to moderate link to a person’s environment or occupation. Depression has been linked to physical activity, which can be fostered by suitable environments. It has been shown to be associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Environmental factors such as living in densely built-up areas and migration were shown to have an influence on the risk of developing schizophrenia.

Ischaemic heart disease (IHD) and strokes can also occur because of air pollution, which increases both the risk to develop and to die of IHD. Exposure to ambient air pollution can reduce life expectancy up to several years. Also, high arsenic exposure in drinking-water nearly doubles this risk. Environmental noise from road or air traffic were shown to increase stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure and IHD.

Th Future of Environmental Risks in Mexico

Despite the clear evidence and negative impact that environmental risks have on healthcare, Mexico’s actions to prevent negative outcomes seem to be failing. “In Mexico, air pollution represents the first environmental risk factor associated with premature mortality,” stated Beatriz Cárdenas, Expert from the Mexico World Resources Institute, during a webinar by Renovables X México. According to Cardenas, factors such as age and socioeconomic inequality alter the effects of environmental pollution, mainly affecting vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with fewer economic resources. “This highlights the urgency to expand sustainable energy solutions around the world," she said.

At the same event, Roberto de la Maza, Professor at the University of the Environment, shared that as a constitutional right, healthcare is to be guaranteed by the state. Thus, “the government must guarantee the improvement of quality of life, including the right to a healthy environment, a condition without which it is not possible to fully guarantee the right to health.”

Cardenas and de la Maza agreed that the energy reform promoted by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will represent a setback in the levels of compliance with the citizen’s right to health. De la Maza explained that such a reform will lead Mexico to greater consumption of fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and fuel oil, to generate electricity. “All these agents severely damage the health of the population, the environment and compromise the future of children in Mexico,” he said.

One of the most concerning health setbacks of the reform relates to a thermoelectric plant in Tula. According to declarations of Stephan Brodziak, Member of the Citizen Observatory of Air Quality to The Swiss Society of Radio-television, the reform changes the electricity dispatch to always supply first the energy of CFE’s old fossil fuel plants over the private renewable and combined cycle plants. Brodziak said that based on this, in Mexico there is a plan to increase the use of fuel oil in thermoelectric plants. “There are studies that indicate that only the pollution by fuel oil from the Tula thermoelectric plant would be responsible for 14,000 premature deaths in the Mexico City metropolitan area,” he added.

Miriam Bello Miriam Bello Journalist and Industry Analyst