Katrina Wyatt, Robin Durie, and Felicity Thomas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The burden of ill health has shifted, globally, from communicable to non-communicable disease, with poor health clustering in areas of economic deprivation. However, for the most part, public health programs remain focused on changing behaviors associated with poor health (such as smoking or physical inactivity) rather than the contexts that give rise to, and influence, the wide range of behaviors associated with poor health. This way of understanding and responding to population ill health views poor health behavior as a defining “problem” exhibited by a particular group of individuals or a community, which needs to be solved by the intervention of expert practitioners. This sort of approach determines individuals and their communities in terms of deficits, and works on the basis of perceived needs within such communities when seeking to address public health issues.
Growing recognition that many of the fundamental determinants of health cannot be attributed solely to individuals, but result instead from the complex interplay between individuals and their social, economic, and cultural environments, has led to calls for new ways of delivering policies and programs aimed at improving health and reducing health inequalities. Such approaches include the incorporation of subjective perspectives and priorities to inform the creation of “health promoting societal contexts.” Alongside this, asset-based approaches to health creation place great emphasis on valuing the skills, knowledge, connections, and potential within a community and seek to identify the protective factors within a neighborhood or organization that support health and wellbeing.
Connecting Communities (C2) is a unique asset-based program aimed at creating the conditions for health and wellness within very low-income communities. At the heart of the program is the belief that health emerges from the patterns of relations within neighborhoods, rather than being a static attribute of individuals. C2 seeks to change the nature of the relations both within communities and with service providers (such as the police, housing, education, and health professionals) to co-create responses to issues that are identified by community members themselves. While many of the issues identified concern local environmental conditions, such as vandalism or safe out-door spaces, many are also contributory determinants of ill health. Listening to people, understanding the social, cultural, and environmental context within which they are located, and supporting new partnerships based on reciprocity and mutual benefit ensures that solutions are grounded in the local context and not externally determined, in turn resulting in sustainable health creating communities.
Sumit Sharma, Liliana Nunez, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs) are widespread pollution clouds that can at times span an entire continent or an ocean basin. ABCs extend vertically from the ground upward to as high as 3 km, and they consist of both aerosols and gases. ABCs consist of anthropogenic aerosols such as sulfates, nitrates, organics, and black carbon and natural dust aerosols. Gaseous pollutants that contribute to the formation of ABCs are NOx (nitrogen oxides), SOx (sulfur oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO (carbon monoxide), CH4 (methane), and O3 (ozone). The brownish color of the cloud (which is visible when looking at the horizon) is due to absorption of solar radiation at short wavelengths (green, blue, and UV) by organic and black carbon aerosols as well as by NOx. While the local nature of ABCs around polluted cities has been known since the early 1900s, the widespread transoceanic and transcontinental nature of ABCs as well as their large-scale effects on climate, hydrological cycle, and agriculture were discovered inadvertently by The Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX), an international experiment conducted in the 1990s over the Indian Ocean. A major discovery of INDOEX was that ABCs caused drastic dimming at the surface. The magnitude of the dimming was as large as 10–20% (based on a monthly average) over vast areas of land and ocean regions. The dimming was shown to be accompanied by significant atmospheric absorption of solar radiation by black and brown carbon (a form of organic carbon). Black and brown carbon, ozone and methane contribute as much as 40% to anthropogenic radiative forcing. The dimming by sulfates, nitrates, and carbonaceous (black and organic carbon) species has been shown to disrupt and weaken the monsoon circulation over southern Asia. In addition, the ozone in ABCs leads to a significant decrease in agriculture yields (by as much as 20–40%) in the polluted regions. Most significantly, the aerosols (in ABCs) near the ground lead to about 4 million premature mortalities every year. Technological and regulatory measures are available to mitigate most of the pollution resulting from ABCs. The importance of ABCs to global environmental problems led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to form the
Lora Fleming, Niccolò Tempini, Harriet Gordon-Brown, Gordon L. Nichols, Christophe Sarran, Paolo Vineis, Giovanni Leonardi, Brian Golding, Andy Haines, Anthony Kessel, Virginia Murray, Michael Depledge, and Sabina Leonelli
Big data refers to large, complex, potentially linkable data from diverse sources, ranging from the genome and social media, to individual health information and the contributions of citizen science monitoring, to large-scale long-term oceanographic and climate modeling and its processing in innovative and integrated “data mashups.” Over the past few decades, thanks to the rapid expansion of computer technology, there has been a growing appreciation for the potential of big data in environment and human health research.
The promise of big data mashups in environment and human health includes the ability to truly explore and understand the “wicked environment and health problems” of the 21st century, from tracking the global spread of the Zika and Ebola virus epidemics to modeling future climate change impacts and adaptation at the city or national level. Other opportunities include the possibility of identifying environment and health hot spots (i.e., locations where people and/or places are at particular risk), where innovative interventions can be designed and evaluated to prevent or adapt to climate and other environmental change over the long term with potential (co-) benefits for health; and of locating and filling gaps in existing knowledge of relevant linkages between environmental change and human health. There is the potential for the increasing control of personal data (both access to and generation of these data), benefits to health and the environment (e.g., from smart homes and cities), and opportunities to contribute via citizen science research and share information locally and globally.
At the same time, there are challenges inherent with big data and data mashups, particularly in the environment and human health arena. Environment and health represent very diverse scientific areas with different research cultures, ethos, languages, and expertise. Equally diverse are the types of data involved (including time and spatial scales, and different types of modeled data), often with no standardization of the data to allow easy linkage beyond time and space variables, as data types are mostly shaped by the needs of the communities where they originated and have been used. Furthermore, these “secondary data” (i.e., data re-used in research) are often not even originated for this purpose, a particularly relevant distinction in the context of routine health data re-use. And the ways in which the research communities in health and environmental sciences approach data analysis and synthesis, as well as statistical and mathematical modeling, are widely different.
There is a lack of trained personnel who can span these interdisciplinary divides or who have the necessary expertise in the techniques that make adequate bridging possible, such as software development, big data management and storage, and data analyses. Moreover, health data have unique challenges due to the need to maintain confidentiality and data privacy for the individuals or groups being studied, to evaluate the implications of shared information for the communities affected by research and big data, and to resolve the long-standing issues of intellectual property and data ownership occurring throughout the environment and health fields. As with other areas of big data, the new “digital data divide” is growing, where some researchers and research groups, or corporations and governments, have the access to data and computing resources while others do not, even as citizen participation in research initiatives is increasing. Finally with the exception of some business-related activities, funding, especially with the aim of encouraging the sustainability and accessibility of big data resources (from personnel to hardware), is currently inadequate; there is widespread disagreement over what business models can support long-term maintenance of data infrastructures, and those that exist now are often unable to deal with the complexity and resource-intensive nature of maintaining and updating these tools.
Nevertheless, researchers, policy makers, funders, governments, the media, and members of the general public are increasingly recognizing the innovation and creativity potential of big data in environment and health and many other areas. This can be seen in how the relatively new and powerful movement of Open Data is being crystalized into science policy and funding guidelines. Some of the challenges and opportunities, as well as some salient examples, of the potential of big data and big data mashup applications to environment and human health research are discussed.
Mental and behavioral disorders account for approximately 7.4% of the global burden of disease, with depression now the world’s leading cause of disability. One in four people in the world will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their life. City planning and design holds much promise for reducing this burden of disease, and for offering solutions that are affordable, accessible and equitable. Increasingly urban green space is recognized as an important social determinant of health, with the potential to protect mental health – for example, by buffering against life stressors - as well as relieving the symptom severity of specific psychiatric disorders. Pathways linking urban green space with mental wellbeing include the ability of natural stimuli – trees, water, light patterns – to promote ‘involuntary attention’ allowing the brain to disengage and recover from cognitive fatigue. This article brings together evidence of the positive effects of urban green space on common mental health problems (i.e. stress, anxiety, depression) together with evidence of its role in the symptom relief of specific psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, attention deficit/hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. Urban green space is a potential force for building mental health: city planners, urban designers, policy makers and public health professionals need to maximize the opportunities in applying green space strategies for both health prevention and in supporting treatment of mental ill health.
Elisabet Lindgren and Thomas Elmqvist
Ecosystem services refer to benefits for human societies and well-being obtained from ecosystems. Research on health effects of ecosystem services have until recently mostly focused on beneficial effects on physical and mental health from spending time in nature or having access to urban green space. However, nearly all of the different ecosystem services may have impacts on health, either directly or indirectly. Ecosystem services can be divided into provisioning services that provide food and water; regulating services that provide, for example, clean air, moderate extreme events, and regulate the local climate; supporting services that help maintain biodiversity and infectious disease control; and cultural services.
With a rapidly growing global population, the demand for food and water will increase. Knowledge about ecosystems will provide opportunities for sustainable agriculture production in both terrestrial and marine environments. Diarrheal diseases and associated childhood deaths are strongly linked to poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. Even though improvements are being made, nearly 750 million people still lack access to reliable water sources. Ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and lakes capture, filter, and store water used for drinking, irrigation, and other human purposes. Wetlands also store and treat solid waste and wastewater, and such ecosystem services could become of increasing use for sustainable development.
Ecosystems contribute to local climate regulation and are of importance for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove and coral reefs, act as natural barriers against storm surges and flooding. Flooding is associated with increased risk of deaths, epidemic outbreaks, and negative health impacts from destroyed infrastructure. Vegetation reduces the risk of flooding, also in cities, by increasing permeability and reducing surface runoff following precipitation events.
The urban heat island effect will increase city-center temperatures during heatwaves. The elderly, people with chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and outdoor workers in cities where temperatures soar during heatwaves are in particular vulnerable to heat. Vegetation and especially trees help in different ways to reduce temperatures by shading and evapotranspiration. Air pollution increases the mortality and morbidity risks during heatwaves. Vegetation has been shown also to contribute to improved air quality by, depending on plant species, filtering out gases and airborne particulates. Greenery also has a noise-reducing effect, thereby decreasing noise-related illnesses and annoyances. Biological control uses the knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity to help control human and animal diseases.
Natural surroundings and urban parks and gardens have direct beneficial effects on people’s physical and mental health and well-being. Increased physical activities have well-known health benefits. Spending time in natural environments has also been linked to aesthetic benefits, life enrichments, social cohesion, and spiritual experience. Even living close to or with a view of nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.
The emergence of environment as a security imperative is something that could have been avoided. Early indications showed that if governments did not pay attention to critical environmental issues, these would move up the security agenda. As far back as the Club of Rome 1972 report, Limits to Growth, variables highlighted for policy makers included world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, all of which impact how we live on this planet.
The term environmental security didn’t come into general use until the 2000s. It had its first substantive framing in 1977, with the Lester Brown Worldwatch Paper 14, “Redefining Security.” Brown argued that the traditional view of national security was based on the “assumption that the principal threat to security comes from other nations.” He went on to argue that future security “may now arise less from the relationship of nation to nation and more from the relationship between man to nature.”
Of the major documents to come out of the Earth Summit in 1992, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is probably the first time governments have tried to frame environmental security. Principle 2 says: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national.”
In 1994, the UN Development Program defined Human Security into distinct categories, including:
• Economic security (assured and adequate basic incomes).
• Food security (physical and affordable access to food).
• Health security.
• Environmental security (access to safe water, clean air and non-degraded land).
By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002, water had begun to be identified as a security issue, first at the Rio+5 conference, and as a food security issue at the 1996 FAO Summit. In 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set up a High-Level Panel on “Threats, Challenges, and Change,” to help the UN prevent and remove threats to peace. It started to lay down new concepts on collective security, identifying six clusters for member states to consider. These included economic and social threats, such as poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation.
By 2007, health was being recognized as a part of the environmental security discourse, with World Health Day celebrating “International Health Security (IHS).” In particular, it looked at emerging diseases, economic stability, international crises, humanitarian emergencies, and chemical, radioactive, and biological terror threats. Environmental and climate changes have a growing impact on health. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified climate security as a key challenge for the 21st century. This was followed up in 2009 by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change—linking health and climate change.
In the run-up to Rio+20 and the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, the issue of the climate-food-water-energy nexus, or rather, inter-linkages, between these issues was highlighted. The dialogue on environmental security has moved from a fringe discussion to being central to our political discourse—this is because of the lack of implementation of previous international agreements.
Global environmental change amplifies and creates pressures that shape human migration. In the 21st century, there has been increasing focus on the complexities of migration and environmental change, including forecasts of the potential scale and pace of so-called environmental migration, identification of geographic sites of vulnerability, policy implications, and the intersections of environmental change with other drivers of human migration. Migration is increasingly viewed as an adaptive response to climatic and environmental change, particularly in terms of livelihood vulnerability and risk diversification. Yet the adaptive potential of migration will be defined in part by health outcomes for migrating populations. There has been limited examination, however, of the health consequences of migration related to environmental change.
Migration related to environmental change includes diverse types of mobility, including internal migration to urban areas, cross-border migration, forced displacement following environmental disaster, and planned relocation—migration into sites of environmental vulnerability; much-debated links between environmental change, conflict, and migration; immobile or “trapped” populations; and displacement due to climate change mitigation and decarbonization action. Although health benefits of migration may accrue, such as increased access to health services or migration away from sites of physical risk, migration—particularly irregular (undocumented) migration and forced displacement—can amplify vulnerabilities and present risks to health and well-being. For diverse migratory pathways, there is the need to anticipate, respond to, and ameliorate population health burdens among migrants.
Michael N. Moore
Humans have been exposed to naturally occurring toxic chemicals and materials over the course of their existence as a species. These materials include various metals, the metalloid arsenic, and atmospheric combustion particulates, as well as bacterial, fungal, algal, and plant toxins. They have also consumed plants that contain a host of phytochemicals, many of which are believed to be beneficial, such as plant polyphenols. People are exposed to these various substances from a number of sources. The pathways of exposure include air, water, groundwater, soil (including via plants grown in toxic soils), and various foods, such as vegetables, fruit, fungi, seafood and fish, eggs, wild birds, marine mammals, and farmed animals.
An overview of the various health benefits, hazards and risks relating to the risks reveals the very wide variety of chemicals and materials that are present in the natural environment and can interact with human biology, to both its betterment and detriment.
The major naturally occurring toxic materials that impact human health include metals, metalloids (e.g., arsenic), and airborne particulates. The Industrial Revolution is a major event that increased ecosystem degradation and the various types and duration of exposure to toxic materials. The explosions in new organic and organometallic products that were and still are produced over the past two centuries have introduced new toxicities and associated pathologies. The prevalence in the environment of harmful particulates from motor-vehicle exhaust emissions, road dust and tire dust, and other combustion processes must also be considered in the broader context of air pollution.
Natural products, such as bacterial, fungal, algal, and plant toxins, can also have adverse effects on health. At the same time, plant-derived phytochemicals (i.e., polyphenols, terpenoids, urolithins, and phenolic acids, etc.) also have beneficial and potential beneficial effects, particularly with regard to their anti-inflammatory effects. Because inflammation is associated with most disease processes, phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are of great interest as potential nutraceuticals. These potentially beneficial compounds may help to combat various cancers; autoimmune conditions; neurodegenerative diseases, including dementias; and psychotic conditions, such as depression, and are also essential micronutrients that promote health and well-being. The cellular and molecular mechanisms in humans that phytochemicals modulate, or otherwise interact with, to improve human health are now known.
In the early 21st century, some of the current pollution issues are legacy problems from past industrialization, such as mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These POPs include many organochlorine compounds (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, polychlorinated and polybrominated dibenzo-dioxans and -furans), as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitro-PAHs, and others. The toxicity of chemical mixtures is still a largely unknown problem, particularly with regard to possible synergies. The continuing development of new organic chemicals and nanomaterials is an important environmental health issue; and the need for vigilance with respect to their possible health hazards is urgent. Nanomaterials, in particular, pose potential novel problems in the context of their chemical properties; humans have not previously been exposed to these types of materials, which may well be able to exploit gaps in our existing cellular protection mechanisms.
Hopefully, future advances in knowledge emerging from combinatorial chemistry, molecular modeling, and predictive quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs), will enable improved identification of the potential toxic properties of novel industrial organic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and nanomaterials before they are released into the natural environment, and thus prevent a repetition of past disastrous events.
George Morris, Marco Martuzzi, Lora Fleming, Francesca Racioppi, and Srdan Matic
Adequate funding, careful planning, and good governance are central to delivering quality research in any field. Yet, the strategic directions for research, the mechanisms through which topics emerge, and the priorities assigned are equally deserving of attention. The need to understand the role played by the environment and to manage the physical environment and the human activities which bear upon it in pursuit of health, well-being, and equity are long established. These imperatives drive environmental health research as a key branch of scientific inquiry.
Targeted research over many years, applying established methods, has informed society’s understanding of the toxic, infectious, allergenic, and physical threats to health from our physical surroundings and how these may be managed. Essentially hazard-focused research continues to deliver policy-relevant findings while simultaneously posing questions to be addressed through further research. Environmental health in the 21st century is, however, confronted by additional challenges of a rather different character. These include the need to understand, in a better and more policy-relevant way, the contributions of the environment to health and equity in complex interaction with other societal and individual-level influences (a so-called socioecological model). Also important are the potential of especially green and blue natural environments to improve health and well-being and promote equity, and the health implications of new approaches to production and consumption, such as the circular economy.
Such challenges add breadth, depth, and richness to the environmental health research agenda, but when combined with the existential and public health threat of humanity’s detrimental impact on the Earth’s systems, they entail a need for new and better strategies for scientific inquiry. As we confront the challenges and uncertainties of the Anthropocene, the complexity expands, the stakes become sky-high, and diverse interests and values clash. Thus, the pressure on environmental health researchers to evolve and engage with stakeholders and reach out to the widest constituency of policy and practice has never been greater, nor has the need to organize to deliver.
A disparate range of contextual factors have become pertinent when scoping the now significantly extended, territory for environmental health research. Moreover, the challenges of prioritizing among the candidate topics for investigation have scarcely been greater.
George Morris and Patrick Saunders
Most people today readily accept that their health and disease are products of personal characteristics such as their age, gender, and genetic inheritance; the choices they make; and, of course, a complex array of factors operating at the level of society. Individuals frequently have little or no control over the cultural, economic, and social influences that shape their lives and their health and well-being. The environment that forms the physical context for their lives is one such influence and comprises the places where people live, learn work, play, and socialize, the air they breathe, and the food and water they consume. Interest in the physical environment as a component of human health goes back many thousands of years and when, around two and a half millennia ago, humans started to write down ideas about health, disease, and their determinants, many of these ideas centered on the physical environment.
The modern public health movement came into existence in the 19th century as a response to the dreadful unsanitary conditions endured by the urban poor of the Industrial Revolution. These conditions nurtured disease, dramatically shortening life. Thus, a public health movement that was ultimately to change the health and prosperity of millions of people across the world was launched on an “environmental conceptualization” of health. Yet, although the physical environment, especially in towns and cities, has changed dramatically in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, so too has our understanding of the relationship between the environment and human health and the importance we attach to it.
The decades immediately following World War II were distinguished by declining influence for public health as a discipline. Health and disease were increasingly “individualized”—a trend that served to further diminish interest in the environment, which was no longer seen as an important component in the health concerns of the day. Yet, as the 20th century wore on, a range of factors emerged to r-establish a belief in the environment as a key issue in the health of Western society. These included new toxic and infectious threats acting at the population level but also the renaissance of a “socioecological model” of public health that demanded a much richer and often more subtle understanding of how local surroundings might act to both improve and damage human health and well-being.
Yet, just as society has begun to shape a much more sophisticated response to reunite health with place and, with this, shape new policies to address complex contemporary challenges, such as obesity, diminished mental health, and well-being and inequities, a new challenge has emerged. In its simplest terms, human activity now seriously threatens the planetary processes and systems on which humankind depends for health and well-being and, ultimately, survival. Ecological public health—the need to build health and well-being, henceforth on ecological principles—may be seen as the society’s greatest 21st-century imperative. Success will involve nothing less than a fundamental rethink of the interplay between society, the economy, and the environment. Importantly, it will demand an environmental conceptualization of the public health as no less radical than the environmental conceptualization that launched modern public health in the 19th century, only now the challenge presents on a vastly extended temporal and spatial scale.
Paolo Vineis and Federica Russo
While genomics has been founded on accurate tools that lead to a limited amount of classification error, exposure assessment in epidemiology is often affected by large error. The “environment” is in fact a complex construct that encompasses chemical exposures (e.g., to carcinogens); biological agents (viruses, or the “microbiome”); and social relationships. The “exposome” concept was then put forward to stress the relatively poor development of appropriate tools for exposure assessment when applied to the study of disease etiology. Three layers of the exposome have been proposed: “general external” (including social capital, stress and psychology); “specific external” (including chemicals, viruses, radiation, etc.); and “internal” (including for example metabolism and gut microflora). In addition, there are at least three properties of the exposome: (a) it is based on a refinement of tools to measure exposures (including internal measurements in the body); (b) it involves a broad definition of “exposure” or environment, including overarching concepts at a societal level; and (c) it involves a temporal component (i.e., exposure is analyzed in a life-course perspective). The conceptual and practical challenge is how the different layers (i.e., general, specific external, and internal) connect to each other in a causally meaningful sequence. The relevance of this question pertains to the translation of science into policy—for example, if experiences in early life impact on the adult risk of disease, and on the quality of aging, how is distant action to be incorporated in biological causal models and into policy interventions? A useful causal theory to address scientific and policy question about exposure is based on the concept of information transmission. Such a theory can explain how to connect the different layers of the exposome in a life-course temporal frame and helps identify the best level for intervention (molecular, individual, or population level). In this context epigenetics plays a key role, partly because it explains the long-distance persistence of epigenetic changes via the concept of “epigenetic memory.”
Hans Keune and Timo Assmuth
Framing and dealing with complexity are crucially important in environment and human health science, policy, and practice. Complexity is a key feature of most environment and human health issues, which by definition include aspects of the environment and human health, both of which constitute complex phenomena. The number and range of factors that may play a role in an environment and human health issue are enormous, and the issues have a multitude of characteristics and consequences. Framing this complexity is crucial because it will involve key decisions about what to take into account when addressing environment and human health issues and how to deal with them. This is not merely a technical process of scientific framing, but also a methodological decision-making process with both scientific and societal implications. In general, the benefits and risks related to such issues cannot be generalized or objectified, and will be distributed unevenly, resulting in health and environmental inequalities. Even more generally, framing is crucial because it reflects cultural factors and historical contingencies, perceptions and mindsets, political processes, and associated values and worldviews. Framing is at the core of how we as humans relate to, and deal with, environment and human health, as scientists, policymakers, and practitioners, with models, policies, or actions.
Erin N. Haynes, Lisa McKenzie, Stephanie A. Malin, and John W. Cherrie
Technological advances in directional well drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled extraction of oil and gas from once unobtainable geological formations. These unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOGE) techniques have positioned the United States as the fastest-growing oil and gas producer in the world. The onset of UOGE as a viable subsurface energy abstraction technology has also led to the rise of public concern about its potential health impacts on workers and communities, both in the United States and other countries where the technology is being developed. Herein we review in the national and global impact of UOGE from a historical perspective of occupational and public health. Also discussed are the sociological interactions between scientific knowledge, social media, and citizen action groups, which have brought wider attention to the potential public health implications of UOGE.
Caroline A. Ochieng, Cathryn Tonne, Sotiris Vardoulakis, and Jan Semenza
Household air pollution from use of solid fuels (biomass fuels and coal) is a major problem in low and middle income countries, where 90% of the population relies on these fuels as the primary source of domestic energy. Use of solid fuels has multiple impacts, on individuals and households, and on the local and global environment. For individuals, the impact on health can be considerable, as household air pollution from solid fuel use has been associated with acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and other illnesses. Household-level impacts include the work, time, and high opportunity costs involved in biomass fuel collection and processing. Harvesting and burning biomass fuels affects local environments by contributing to deforestation and outdoor air pollution. At a global level, inefficient burning of solid fuels contributes to climate change.
Improved biomass cookstoves have for a long time been considered the most feasible immediate intervention in resource-poor settings. Their ability to reduce exposure to household air pollution to levels that meet health standards is however questionable. In addition, adoption of improved cookstoves has been low, and there is limited evidence on how the barriers to adoption and use can be overcome. However, the issue of household air pollution in low and middle income countries has gained considerable attention in recent years, with a range of international initiatives in place to address it. These initiatives could enable a transition from biomass to cleaner fuels, but such a transition also requires an enabling policy environment, especially at the national level, and new modes of financing technology delivery. More research is also needed to guide policy and interventions, especially on exposure-response relationships with various health outcomes and on how to overcome poverty and other barriers to wide-scale transition from biomass fuels to cleaner forms of energy.
Richard Sharpe, Nicholas Osborne, Cheryl Paterson, Timothy Taylor, Lora Fleming, and George Morris
Despite the overwhelming evidence that living in poor-quality housing and built environments are significant contributors to public health problems, housing issues persist and represent a considerable societal and economic burden worldwide. The complex interaction between multiple behavioral, lifestyle, and environmental factors influencing health throughout the “life-course” (i.e., from childhood to adulthood) in high-income countries has limited the ability to develop more salutogenic housing interventions. The resultant, usually negative, health outcomes depend on many specific housing factors including housing quality and standards, affordability, overcrowding, the type of tenure and property. The immediate outdoor environment also plays an important role in health and wellbeing at the population level, which includes air (indoor and outdoor), noise pollution and the quality of accessible natural environments. These exposures are particularly important for more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or infirm, and those living in insecure accommodation or in fuel poverty (i.e., being unable to heat the home adequately). Being homeless also is associated with increased risks in a number of health problems.
Investigating pathways to protecting health and wellbeing has led to a range of studies examining the potential benefits resulting from accessing more natural environments, more sustainable communities, and housing interventions such as “green construction” techniques. Built environment interventions focusing on the provision of adequate housing designs that incorporate a “life-course” approach, affordable and environmentally sustainable homes, and urban regeneration along with active community engagement, appear capable of improving the overall physical and mental health of residents. While some interventions have resulted in improved public health outcomes in more high-income countries, others have led to a range of unintended consequences that can adversely affect residents’ health and wellbeing. Furthering understanding into four interrelated factors such as housing-specific issues, the immediate environment and housing, vulnerable populations, and natural spaces and sustainable communities can help to inform the development of future interventions.
Knowledge of the important role that the environment plays in determining human health predates the modern public health era. However, the tendency to see health, disease, and their determinants as attributes of individuals rather than characteristics of communities meant that the role of the environment in human health was seldom accorded sufficient importance during much of the 20th century. Instead, research began to focus on specific risk factors that correlated with diseases of greatest concern, i.e., the non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes. Many of these risk factors (e.g., smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet) were aspects of individual lifestyle and behaviors, freely chosen by the individual. Within this individual-centric framework of human health, the standard economic model for human health became primarily the Grossman model of health and health care demand.
In this model, an individual’s health stock may be increased by investing in health (by consuming health services, for example) or decreased by endogenous (age) or exogenous (smoking) individual factors. Within this model, individuals used their available resources, their budget, to purchase goods and services that either increased or decreased their health stock. Grossman’s model provides a consumption-based approach to human health, where individuals purchase goods and services required to improve their individual health in the marketplace. Grossman’s model of health assumes that the goods and services required to optimize good health can be purchased through market-based interactions and that these goods and services are optimally priced—that the value of the goods and services are reflected in their price.
In reality, many types of goods and services that are good for human health are not available to purchase, or if they are available they are undervalued in the free market. Across the environmental and health literature, these goods and services are, today, broadly referred to as “ecosystem services for human health.” However, the quasi-public good nature of ecosystem services for human health means that the private market will generate a suboptimal environment for both individual and public health outcomes. In the face of continued austerity and scarce public resources, understanding the role of the environment in human health may help to alleviate future health care demand by decreasing (or increasing) environmental risk (or benefits) associated with health outcomes. However, to take advantage of the role that the environment plays in human health requires a fundamental reorientation of public health policy and spending to include environmental considerations.
There is scientific consensus that human activities have been altering the atmospheric composition and are a key driver of global climate and environmental changes since pre-industrial times (IPCC, 2013). It is a pressing priority to understand the Earth system response to atmospheric aerosol input from diverse sources, which so far remain one of the largest uncertainties in climate studies (Boucher et al., 2014; Forster et al., 2007). As the second most abundant component (in terms of mass) of atmospheric aerosols, mineral dust exerts tremendous impacts on Earth’s climate and environment through various interaction and feedback processes. Dust can also have beneficial effects where it deposits: Central and South American rain forests get most of their mineral nutrients from the Sahara; iron-poor ocean regions get iron; and dust in Hawaii increases plantain growth. In northern China as well as the midwestern United States, ancient dust storm deposits known as loess are highly fertile soils, but they are also a significant source of contemporary dust storms when soil-securing vegetation is disturbed. Accurate assessments of dust emission are of great importance to improvements in quantifying the diverse dust impacts.
Giovanni Lo Iacono and Gordon L. Nichols
The introduction of pasteurization, antibiotics, and vaccinations, as well as improved sanitation, hygiene, and education, were critical in reducing the burden of infectious diseases and associated mortality during the 19th and 20th centuries and were driven by an improved understanding of disease transmission. This advance has led to longer average lifespans and the expectation that, at least in the developed world, infectious diseases were a problem of the past. Unfortunately this is not the case; infectious diseases still have a significant impact on morbidity and mortality worldwide. Moreover, the world is witnessing the emergence of new pathogens, the reemergence of old ones, and the spread of antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, effective control of infectious diseases is challenged by many factors, including natural disasters, extreme weather, poverty, international trade and travel, mass and seasonal migration, rural–urban encroachment, human demographics and behavior, deforestation and replacement with farming, and climate change.
The importance of environmental factors as drivers of disease has been hypothesized since ancient times; and until the late 19th century, miasma theory (i.e., the belief that diseases were caused by evil exhalations from unhealthy environments originating from decaying organic matter) was a dominant scientific paradigm. This thinking changed with the microbiology era, when scientists correctly identified microscopic living organisms as the pathogenic agents and developed evidence for transmission routes. Still, many complex patterns of diseases cannot be explained by the microbiological argument alone, and it is becoming increasingly clear that an understanding of the ecology of the pathogen, host, and potential vectors is required.
There is increasing evidence that the environment, including climate, can affect pathogen abundance, survival, and virulence, as well as host susceptibility to infection. Measuring and predicting the impact of the environment on infectious diseases, however, can be extremely challenging. Mathematical modeling is a powerful tool to elucidate the mechanisms linking environmental factors and infectious diseases, and to disentangle their individual effects. A common mathematical approach used in epidemiology consists in partitioning the population of interest into relevant epidemiological compartments, typically individuals unexposed to the disease (susceptible), infected individuals, and individuals who have cleared the infection and become immune (recovered). The typical task is to model the transitions from one compartment to another and to estimate how these populations change in time. There are different ways to incorporate the impact of the environment into this class of models. Two interesting examples are water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases. For water-borne diseases, the environment can be represented by an additional compartment describing the dynamics of the pathogen population in the environment—for example, by modeling the concentration of bacteria in a water reservoir (with potential dependence on temperature, pH, etc.). For vector-borne diseases, the impact of the environment can be incorporated by using explicit relationships between temperature and key vector parameters (such as mortality, developmental rates, biting rate, as well as the time required for the development of the pathogen in the vector).
Despite the tremendous advancements, understanding and mapping the impact of the environment on infectious diseases is still a work in progress. Some fundamental aspects, for instance, the impact of biodiversity on disease prevalence, are still a matter of (occasionally fierce) debate. There are other important challenges ahead for the research exploring the potential connections between infectious diseases and the environment. Examples of these challenges are studying the evolution of pathogens in response to climate and other environmental changes; disentangling multiple transmission pathways and the associated temporal lags; developing quantitative frameworks to study the potential effect on infectious diseases due to anthropogenic climate change; and investigating the effect of seasonality. Ultimately, there is an increasing need to develop models for a truly “One Health” approach, that is, an integrated, holistic approach to understand intersections between disease dynamics, environmental drivers, economic systems, and veterinary, ecological, and public health responses.
Air pollution has been a major threat to human health, ecosystems, and agricultural crops ever since the onset of widespread use of fossil fuel combustion and emissions of harmful substances into ambient air. As a basis for the development, implementation, and compliance assessment of air pollution control policies, monitoring networks for priority air pollutants were established, primarily for regulatory purposes. With increasing understanding of emission sources and the release and environmental fate of chemicals and toxic substances into ambient air, as well as atmospheric transport and chemical conversion processes, increasingly complex air pollution models have entered the scene. Today, highly accurate equipment is available to measure trace gases and aerosols in the atmosphere. In addition, sophisticated atmospheric chemistry transport models—which are routinely compared to and validated and assessed against measurements—are used to model dispersion and chemical processes affecting the composition of the atmosphere, and the resulting ambient concentrations of harmful pollutants. The models also provide methods to quantify the deposition of pollutants, such as acidifying and eutrophying substances, in vegetation, soils, and freshwater ecosystems. This article provides a general overview of the underlying concepts and key features of monitoring and modeling systems for outdoor air pollution.
Matilda van den Bosch
Human beings are part of natural ecosystems and depend on them for their survival. In a rapidly changing environment and with increasing urbanization, this dependence is challenged. Natural environments affect human health and well-being both directly and indirectly. Urban green and blue areas provide opportunities for stress recovery and physical activity. They offer spaces for social interactions in the neighborhood and places for children’s play. Chronic stress, physical inactivity, and lack of social cohesion are three major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, and therefore abundant urban greenery is an important asset for health promotion.
Through numerous ecosystem services natural environments play a fundamental role in protecting health. Various populations depend on nature for basic material, such as fresh water, wood, fuel, and nutritious food. Biodiverse natural areas are also necessary for regulating the environment and for mitigating and adapting to climate change. For example, tree canopy cover can reduce the urban heat island effect substantially, preventing excess morbidity during heat waves. This natural heat-reducing effect also lessens the need for air conditioning systems and as a consequence decreases energy spending. Urban trees also support storm-water management, preventing flooding and related health issues. Air pollution is a major threat to population health. Urban trees sequester pollutants and, even though the effect may be relatively small, given the severity of the problem it may still have some public-health implications.
The evidence around the effects of natural environments on health and well-being is steadily increasing. Several pathways and mechanisms are suggested, such as health services through functional ecosystems, early life exposure to biodiverse microbiota, which is important for the immune-system development, and sensory exposure, which has direct neurobiological impact supporting cognitive development and stress resilience. Support for several pathways is at hand that shows lower mortality rates and prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, healthier pregnancy outcomes, reduced health inequalities, and improved mental health in urban areas with greater amounts of green and blue space.
Altogether, the interactions between healthy natural environments and healthy people are multiple and complex, and require interdisciplinary attention and action for full understanding and resilient development of both nature and human beings.