With the world in waves of COVID-19, the issue of health has dominated public attention.
Of all the issues exposed by this pandemic, perhaps the most poignant is the fact that having neglected the elements that surround us for much of the last century, we have inadvertently made our world a less healthy place to live. Evidence indicates that our lifestyles and behaviours have affected our living environment; and consequently, undermined our health. The World Health Organization attributes 23 per cent of all deaths to unhealthy environments; and this year, the top five risks cited in the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report were all related to the environment.
Here are seven ways that our failure to care for the environment is affecting our own health.
We are breathing polluted air.
Air is the foundation on which all human life depends. Yet, according to World Health Organization, nine out of every ten people in the world breathes air that is polluted. Microscopic pollutants from diesel fuel emissions and burning of trash, coal, kerosene and biomass penetrate deep into lungs and bloodstreams and result in various diseases. Meanwhile, methane emissions from industrial agriculture, oil and gas production and solid waste contribute to ground-level ozone and cause asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses. Globally, air pollution accounts for 7 per cent of lung cancer deaths, 18 per cent of pulmonary disease deaths, 20 per cent of stroke deaths, and 34 per cent of heart disease deaths.
Over 90 per cent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, but high-income countries are not immune. According to a 2020 report, many cities in the United States have reached or surpassed their own highest levels of particle pollution; and nationwide, nearly half the population lives in a place with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution.
In the context of COVID-19 infection, medical experts have warned that existing health problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or heart disease are critical determinants of lung damage risk; and results of a recent study indicate that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide-largely the result of burning fossil fuels-may be one of the most important contributors to COVID-19 fatality.
We are drinking contaminated water.
A person requires 20 to 50 litres of clean water every day, just for drinking and basic personal hygiene. Around the world, water quality is contaminated by household, municipal and medical waste, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial discharge. And 80 per cent of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. This puts an approximate 1.8 billion people at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio and other health complications.
Since the 1990s, water pollution has worsened in almost all rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization is emphatic that frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent viral infection. Yet, a survey of the 42 countries with available data indicates that fewer than half of the population has basic handwashing facilities-water and soap-in their own homes.
We are compromising the nutritional value of the foods we eat.
A safe and healthy diet contributes to a good state of health; protecting against malnutrition, reducing the risk of disease and promoting a strong immune system.
However, population growth and urbanization have coincided with a rise in health problems related to poor nutrition, around the world. Remarkably, while an approximate 800 million people suffer from insecure food supplies, 2.1 billion people are obese or overweight. This underscores the fact that having sufficient food and having nutritious foods are two very distinct challenges.
Intensive and industrialized food production has lowered the cost and expanded the availability of highly processed and nutrient-poor foods so that 60 per cent of dietary energy is derived from just three cereal crops: rice, maize and wheat. Two billion people lack essential vitamins and minerals critical for growth and development, such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in three people suffers from malnutrition-and "a large part of the world's population is affected by diet-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer."
We are consuming harmful substances.
Aside from contributing to environmental pollution, the use of pesticides for intensive farming can be a serious detriment to human health. In developing countries, 25 million people suffer from acute pesticide poisoning every year. While pesticides deemed harmful have been banned by countries signatory to the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, their residue can remain in soil and water for years.
Food processing-treatments to improve taste, appearance and longevity-and packaging also present risks. A 2015 evaluation by the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat as carcinogenic, linking it to colorectal cancer; and in some countries, endocrine disrupting chemicals, which can produce adverse developmental, neurological and immune effects, can be found in plastic bottles and metal food cans.
We are increasing our exposure to zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19.
By altering natural wildlife habitats for our own living, agriculture and industrial purposes, humans have reduced the natural "buffer zones" that would have separated them from wildlife, and created opportunities for diseases like COVID-19 to spill over from wild animals to people. The situation is compounded by climate change-which causes changes in temperature, humidity and seasonality and directly affects the survival of microbes; and international travel-which means that a disease originating in one country can break out in another, within the space of hours.
We are developing immunity to antimicrobial drugs.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, antimicrobial treatments have been used in both human and veterinary medicine. In many parts of the world, they are also added to animal feed, to promote faster growth. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, "the use of antimicrobials in animal production and health is expected to double within 20 years."
As a consequence, antimicrobials have become less effective as medicine, in both animal and human healthcare. Globally, an approximate 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.
We are reducing nature's wealth of medicines
Worldwide, an estimated 60,000 plants, animals and microbe species are employed for their medicinal, nutritional and aromatic properties. They comprise a large portion of existing pharmaceuticals. In the United States, 118 of the leading 150 prescription drugs are based on natural sources -and natural products have been particularly important in the area of cancer therapy.
However, as a result of human actions-including overharvesting, habitat alternation and climate change-wild plant resources are in drastic decline. Worldwide, an estimated 15,000 medicinal plant species may be threatened with extinction; and estimates suggest that the Earth loses at least one potential major drug, every two years.
We can only care for ourselves if we care for our environment.
In the absence of serious and immediate behaviour change, "pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people," says an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the interdependence of humans and our environment. Representing just one of the estimated 8 million species on the planet, we are a small part of an intricate, delicately-balanced web of life. Damage to one part of the web upsets the balance and affects the whole system.
But, the pandemic also represents an opportunity to plan a better recovery and build a better future.
The United Nations will support all governments to pursue the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, to ensure that people emerge stronger.
Recognizing nature as a solution to some of humanity's most pressing challenges, UNEP and its partners are launching the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, a globally-coordinated, 10-year effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. UNEP is also working with world leaders to develop a new and ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. And on 5 June, World Environment Day will engage governments, businesses, celebrities and citizens to rethink their relationship to nature and call for leaders to make decisions that put nature in the centre.
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