The Environment and Human Health

Hello everyone! Today, we’ll finally be discussing one of the most important, yet unnoticed aspects of the environment – its impacts on human health. Believe it or not, many of the environmental issues we face today (global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, etc) are more closely linked to our own health than we may have thought. So, today I decided I’d finally make a post dedicated to 5 of the most prevalent environmental stressors on human health. Keep reading to see what they are!

  1. Increased Risk of Cancer and other Diseases via Air Pollution

Traditional air pollution is caused by emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and even residential homes (think heating systems). Air pollution can further be exacerbated by the incineration of garbage, wildfires, emissions from agriculture, ozone, particulate matter, and the natural decay of organisms such as microbes. In coastal areas, aerosols from seawater can carry microplastics and toxins produced by algal blooms whose production can be exemplified by acidified water. 

When inhaled, these pollutants can wreak havoc on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. People can experience both long and short-term irritation of the respiratory system (chest pain, congestion, coughing, reduced lung function), develop / further exacerbate allergies and symptoms of asthma, and even contract serious airway diseases such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). As for the cardiovascular system, the risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes is greatly increased. When coupled with factors such as warming temperatures and greater pollen concentrations, these symptoms can further develop and increase sensitivities. And, while immunocompromised individuals and asthmatics are more vulnerable to the aforementioned impacts, people who don’t already face these conditions can be just as likely to develop them.

  1. Nutritional Harm via Water and Food Pollution

One of the most important resources the environment provides us is food (in the form of animals from the land or sea and plants) and water. However, these resources can easily be contaminated. Industrial and residential runoff can leak into freshwater supplies, making them unsafe for human consumption as they can transmit diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, polio, and hepatitis A. These pollutants can also run into the oceans, where they can be incorporated by marine organisms and then be passed on to those who later consume them, or become incorporated in crops grown on land.

Other pollutants can actually reduce the populations of certain species that humans rely on for nutrition, decreasing certain nutrient intake which can seriously affect children. Changing temperatures and water pH can allow for certain harmful pathogens to flourish and thus pose a larger risk to food and water safety. Increased droughts and flooding can also damage crops that are a large part of the human diet. One recent cause for concern is a type of pollutant known as microplastics, which are small particles that can very easily enter the human body and disrupt the immune system, induce inflammation, and even affect pregnancy.

  1. Increased Risk of Weather-Related Illnesses

One of the most notable impacts of global warming and other environmental issues is the increased occurrence of extreme weather events or natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, heat waves, and heavy snowstorms. These events can all directly kill people, but they have underlying impacts as well. Floods and other water-related disasters can cause the sea level to rise, increasing the chance of damage to coastal areas. Extreme heat can increase the likelihood of developing hyperthermia, heat stroke, and heat rash, which can be very dangerous if not treated properly or in time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, extreme cold can lead to hypothermia or frostbite, which are also extremely dangerous. Storms generate projectiles and debris which can inflict serious injuries when traveling at high speeds. These impacts are further exacerbated when coupled with the physical damage that results from the natural disasters – compromised health care facilities, food and water supplies, and roads can increase the risk of death.

  1. Mental Health Deterioration

If the environmental impacts on human health as a whole are not widely discussed, then the impacts on mental health aren’t talked about at all. The environment has long been known to boost mental health by facilitating positive emotions and lessening the impact of anxiety and depression, so the lack of access to natural spaces due to their unwanted modification can eradicate those benefits. The worsening state of the environment can also change our perceptions about the world and increase our concerns over our own safety, which has the potential to cause everything from stress to clinical depression.

Those that live in areas that have been ravaged from harmful phenomena such as natural disasters may find themselves in a position in which they cannot seek help for the issues they are facing (see the above section), whether that be from their community or local health care facilities; this, of course, can add to the stress. This stress can compound and end up decreasing the stability of entire communities. Studies have also shown that natural disasters or other harmful events themselves can cause serious trauma (watching your home be destroyed can be a very traumatic experience).

  1. Lack of Opportunities to Develop Medicines

Another interesting aspect of the connection between humans and the environment to consider presents itself in the form of medicines. Several ancient remedies rely heavily on natural products, but even in the pharmaceutical world, it’s estimated that more than 80% of drug substances are derived from natural resources, among them being penicillin and other drugs used in chemotherapy. That being said, not all of the natural world has been explored, and within that world lies many possibilities to derive even more beneficial medicines for human use. However, as I’m sure you can tell by now, many ecosystems home to complex webs of biodiversity are being destroyed by over-exploitation, and with them, the opportunities to harvest their biodiversity for medical use are too. It’s not only medicines this affects, though. There are several other practical applications for natural products, such as in “glues” to mend wounds, painless needles, and drug-delivery vehicles for the body. 

While these are all serious implications for our own health, one important thing to consider when discussing them is the socioeconomic context of the areas we live in. Most of you reading this likely live in areas that are better-off – you don’t need to worry about the local power plant or contaminated water. However, that is not the case for the vast majority of the planet, and to make it worse, the areas most affected by environmental issues are usually the ones that do not have the resources to properly combat them. This is why many of us typically have not paid much attention to the risks posed to human health.

That being put aside, that’s all for today! Hopefully this brief post has opened your eyes to the striking link between the environment and human health and well-being that just keeps building off of itself. Share this information with someone around you to raise awareness for those that are in need. Until next time, everyone!

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