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Canadian Public Health Association

Environment and health: linked for life

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Since the release of the Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future" in 1987, more individuals and governments are recognizing the importance of the global environment to our survival. Interest groups are springing up left, right and centre. "Save the Rain Forest," "Save the Whales," "Stop Acid Rain" are just some of the calls to action proliferating around the world. Recycle, reduce and reuse are also becoming part of our daily lives.

The environment affects us all. Each day, newspapers, radio, and television bring to us the drama of the fragility of the environment and remind us of the urgency to safeguard the future for our children.

An increasing number of us are just beginning to recognize that the environment is vital to our health. The need to reduce acid rain emissions, stop dumping hazardous wastes, and slow down deforestation must be addressed from the perspective of people's health.

The health of our environment affects human health in different forms. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat are all slowly, and not so slowly in many countries, especially major cities, becoming polluted - unsafe to consume without endangering our well-being.


Air Pollution and Water Pollution

Renewable Resource Use and Management

Toxic Substance and Hazardous Waste Management


Acid Rain and Transboundary Pollution

Stress on regional Ecosystems

Protecting Migratory Wildlife

Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes


Global Warming

Ozone Depletion

Safeguarding the Health of Oceans

Ensuring Biological Diversity

Sustaining the World's Forest

The air we breath

Atmospheric pollution weakens the protective capabilities of the ozone layer. The build-up of gases creates and exacerbates the greenhouse effect, as well as increases the risk of cancer. Air pollution contributes to acute respiratory illnesses.


In Mexico City, home to 20 million people, the air pollution is so bad that the city has installed oxygen booths in the city centre. The smog in Los Angeles is the stuff of legend.

The thick grey haze that hangs over a city is commonly called smog, and its main component is ground-level ozone. It is formed by the meeting of sunlight and two pollutants: nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons. Ozone is needed in the upper atmosphere, where it filters the sun's harmful rays, but is noxious to life on the earth's surface.

Elevated ozone concentrations harm agricultural crops, animals, materials (hardening rubber and bleaching colored objects) and the human respiratory system.

Canada may not have any cities that can match smog levels in Mexico City or Los Angeles, but its air is far from pristine. The highest ozone concentrations are in Southern Ontario, but cities all across Canada experience at least one day a year when ozone levels are in excess of acceptable levels.

Much of the air pollution comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, in cars, buses, trucks, and factories. These emissions produce oxides of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen which result in acid rain production and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (greenhouse effect). Most of this air pollution comes from developed countries which produce more than 80% of the emissions.

In the Third World, the geographic location of many cities and of their slums, together with certain atmospheric conditions, promotes air pollution. Much of this is caused by the outdoor stagnation of cooking and heating fire emanations.


Children suffer more from degraded environments than adults. The toll is especially high in the developing countries, according to a report issued jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Children's Fund.

An estimated 14 million children under five die each year as a result of poor sanitation, tainted drinking water supplies, malnutrition, common diseases, and environmental pollution. An additional three million children are seriously disabled.

Diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection (some of which is attributable to air pollution) each account for about four million deaths. Children inhale more air per unit of body weight than adults, maximizing the effect of pollutants. In 1985 highly industrialized, and highly polluted, Cubatão, Brazil, saw high infant mortality run a suspicious ten per cent above the rest of São Paulo state.

Deaths from common diseases may begin with inadequate diet brought about by degraded land. Children, whose nutritional needs exceed those of adults, weaken quickly from lack of sufficient food supply. In addition, radiation, mercury, and pesticides may cause birth defects.

Unlike the more sophisticated control technologies used in the developed countries, factories in developing countries often operate without any pollution controls or enforcement of pollution legislation. This results in a host of toxic by-products released unchecked in the living environment of nearby communities.

The water we drink

Water pollution comes in two forms: water-borne diseases caused by poor sanitation (microbiological contamination); and genetic and health-damaging pollutants caused by man-made chemicals. The result is water unfit for human consumption without treatment, as well as for aquatic life, irrigation and industrial purposes.

Toxic wastes dumped in countries without adequate safeguards pollute water supplies, leading to poisonings and deaths, genetic damage and generational impact yet to be fully studied or understood.

The food we eat

Soil degradation caused by the improper and/or overuse of land, means reduced food production, resulting in poor nutrition, poor health and decreased mental capabilities.

To counter decreased food production due to soil degradation, farmers turn to pesticides and fertilizers. Without training in the proper storage and application of these chemicals, many farmers and their families risk poisonings, long-term health effects and sometimes even death.

Toxic wastes also affect the land in which food is grown. As humans, we are at the top of the food chain. Toxins ingested by both plants and animals which we in turn consume, have a magnified impact on us.

Everyone is vulnerable to environmental health problems. Threats to the environment do not respect national boundaries. The impact of the Exxon oil spill in Alaska was felt in Canada as well as the U.S.. According to scientists, the spill contaminated fish 800 kilometers away, killed 580,000 sea birds and up to 5,500 sea otters, polluted tidal zones to depths of 100 meters, fouled beaches, and brought high death and abnormality rates to fish eggs.

The meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which affected the whole of Europe, is another of many examples of environmental degradation which has strayed beyond national boundaries.

Global warming and its impact on climatic conditions around the world also makes clear the fact that we all rely on a safe environment. Increasingly, we are becoming aware of what effect environmental degradation is having on essential ecosystems, which is negatively affecting the quality, and indeed the viability of our lives.

Unfortunately, it is the poor, and the most disadvantaged who almost invariably suffer the most from environmental degradation. Poor nutrition, overcrowding, air pollution, lack of clean water and adequate sanitation which are endemic among poor people, especially in developing countries - combined with unequal access to health care, both preventative and curative - mean that the poor are more vulnerable to disease and ill health. They also lack access to knowledge of environmental threats and awareness of what they can do to safeguard themselves. This is equally true in developed countries, however, developing countries have the additional burden of having not only some of the largest populations but also the greatest numbers of the poorest people.

Poverty itself is both a cause and effect of major environmental degradation and poor health. It is only by addressing the causes of poverty that we will be able to stop the cycle of degradation described in the Bruntland Report: those who are poor and hungry will often destroy their immediate environment in order to survive. They will cut down forests; their livestock will overgraze grasslands; they will overuse marginal lands; and in growing numbers will crowd into congested cities.

As humans we affect the environment, often in negative ways. In turn, it affects us. We have to stop the spiral of degradation, before we end up the losers.

What is being done? This Fact Sheet looks at activities in the area of environment and health. It also looks at the UNCED Conference in Rio, and what it tried to achieve. Responsibility for treating our environment with greater consideration starts with individuals.

Blueprint for the Future

In June 1992, the leaders of the nations of the world met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a conference which could well determine the fate of the earth. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was the first Earth Summit. There, heads of state and government made decisions which will shape the prospects for the human future.

These prospects are clouded by mounting evidence that wasteful and destructive human activities are undermining the capacity of our planet to provide a secure and hospitable home for all its peoples, both rich and poor. World population and human activities continue to grow, escalating the pressures on the environment and resource base and the risks of global warming, ozone depletion, pollution of air, water and the food chain, destruction of forests, soil, plant and animal life.

Human activities have created a technological civilization that is now global in scale and pervasive in its influence on the lives and the prospects of all members of the world community. It has produced a world with stark dichotomies between the benefits enjoyed by the few, and the deprivation and suffering experienced by the majority. The gross imbalances created by the concentration of economic growth in developed nations and the high rates of population growth in developing countries are at the centre of the current dilemma.

The plan of action for UNCED was Agenda 21. It is a comprehensive outline of action for the twenty-first century on all areas affecting the relationship between environment and development. It addresses each of the most critical issues in turn - population and consumption; energy, land and food; desertification and soil loss; forests and deforestation; fresh water and ocean pollution; trade in hazardous wastes; and so on. It also addresses the broader issues such as reversing international financial flows from the poor to the rich, trade access, technology transfer, empowerment of women, and strengthening the capacity of developing country institutions to act on the issues.

Global Warming: The World Climate Convention addresses the problem of global warming.

It establishes specific targets and schedules for the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions, which by necessity means much greater energy efficiency, conservation, and use of alternative sources to fossil fuels. The Convention also seeks to control and limit the rates of ozone depletion and acid rain, which threaten human health. It was negotiated in light of the fact that while it is developed countries which have produced more than 80% of the emissions over the past 150 years, and who have reaped the benefits, developing countries are suffering the consequences, and are being threatened with the loss of development opportunity that the North had. The world's atmosphere is more than just our climate control; degradation of the atmosphere will lead to increased rates of diseases, changes in vegetation patterns as well as in water levels and drinkability.

Originally, there were three conventions that were to be ready for signature at Rio. Two were presented for consideration: one to limit global warming and sea level rise (above), and another to protect biodiversity and reduce the tragic loss of species (below). The third, to halt net deforestation, has been postponed in favor of a simple declaration of sound principles of forest management as agreement on targets and practices could not be reached.

Endangered Species:

The Biodiversity Convention was meant to spell out a framework to achieve a balance between conservation and the sustainable use of the world's biodiversity, including its use in biotechnology. It was negotiated in light of the fact that the world is being impoverished by the loss and degradation of its most fundamental living resources - its genes, species, habitats, and ecosystems at rates that far exceed natural extinction. This is dangerous as the world's ecological systems are humanity's life-support mechanisms.

The World Climate Convention received unanimous approval, although the target levels set are much weaker than originally hoped for. Every country in the world signed the Biodiversity Convention, except for the United States of America.

The World Summit has focused our attention, established blueprints, the challenge remains to act. The changes that we must make are fundamental and extremely difficult to achieve. But the fact that they are imperative provides a powerful incentive to mobilize on an unprecedented scale our capacities for political, economic and social innovation and leadership. This must be manifested at every level from the behavior of individuals to global cooperation. Such cooperation can only be based on the common interests of all humanity: for the future of our health, our planet, our very survival.

Environment & Health: What can you do?

Set an Example

  • "live green, " conserve energy and resources, avoid using toxic materials, and be as environmentally conscious as possible;
  • ensure your organization has, and follows, an environmental code of practice;
  • establish a "Green Team " in your organization;
  • insist that all events and activities in which your organization is a partner be environmentally responsible;
  • give priority to programs that will protect human and ecosystem health;
  • begin to examine what steps can be taken to prepare for ecological decline;
  • at a national and international level, take the threat of ecological decline seriously, assess the likelihood of health and social effects, monitor the situation, and prepare suitable contingency plans.

Educate Professionals

  • educate your peers, colleagues and students about the health implications of global ecological issues, and about the links between ecosystem and human health;
  • ensure that such education is provided to all health practitioners, not just those in public health;
  • continue and expand organizational work in educating health practitioners about the links between health and the environment.

Educate the Public

  • include information about the crisis and what can be done about it in your ongoing health education activities;
  • develop specific public education programs about the health dimensions of the global ecological issues and what people can do about it;
  • communicate your organization's concern to the public with press releases, media briefings, public service announcements, etc.;
  • establish a resource centre on health and the environment to improve communication and knowledge distribution to both practitioners and the public.

Develop Research/Knowledge

  • monitor the health of local ecosystems and human health, looking for evidence of the health effects of the global or regional ecological crisis;
  • conduct research on the links between health and the environment;
  • develop alternatives to existing practices that will be more beneficial to human and ecosystem health;
  • collaborate with other researchers in related fields and in other countries.


  • be an advocate for human and ecosystem health within your own organization;
  • insist that your own organization become an advocate for environmentally healthy public policies at the national and international level;
  • advocate that your organization's branches take action at the regional level;
  • seek input into other relevant national initiatives;
  • call for the spending necessary to support the education, research and other actions necessary to address the global ecological crisis and its health effects.

Build Networks/Coalitions

  • join environmental groups;
  • participate in, or help to create networks in your community and region;
  • establish coalitions with other national health organizations to address the health implications of the global ecological issues, and to mobilize and coordinate the health sector in society;
  • establish close working relations with environmental groups, the business sector, the labor movement, and all who are working to protect human and ecosystem health for this and future generations.

Source: Human & Ecosystem Health: Canadian Perspectives, Canadian Action (CPHA, 1992)

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International Health Awareness Program
404-1525 AV CARLING

Telephone: (613) 725-3769
Fax: (613) 725-9826

Editor: Sandra Miller

Permission to reprint material from this fact sheet is freely granted, provided proper credit is given. The Editor requests a copy of publications in which material is used.

Direct all correspondence and submissions to the Editor at the above address. Unsolicited articles and ideas are welcome.

The International Health Awareness Program is funded by the Institutional Cooperation and Development Services Division of the Canadian International Development Agency.

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Originally printed 09/92; Revised 05/96