Relationship Between Health and Environment



We are living in a world of contrasts. Scientific and technological progress has brought advanced health care system; many diseases today that were fatal in the past, if not eradicated, are brought under control. As a contrast, people living in developed countries are suffering from cardiovascular diseases and cancer associated with inappropriate diet and stressful life.

Industrial revolution brought social and technological development, but also introduced pollution on large-scale. With modern industry things have just got worse. When the extent of industry was limited, contamination area was reduced to immediate vicinity affecting health and safety of those workers directly involved in production. In a modern global society we live in today this problem has become, well, "global". The toxic that is most common in our environment is lead; it is used in vaccines, pesticides, antiperspirants, building materials, gas and even found in drinking water. If we think about global population growth and its growing needs and industry relying on components that are toxic, we can assume that industrial development has a devastating impact on environment and public health.

In the past, diseases were attributed to meteorological events such as changes in the seasons, storms and eclipses. Some societies linked disease to corrupt or polluted air from corpses, swamps and other sources. In prehistoric times people believed that evil spirits or God caused people to become ill. By the 16th and 17th centuries connection between health and environment had become commonly recognized. Fresh air and elimination of bad smells were considered important, and a healthy environment was thought to produce healthy food and drink. Earth was respected as a living, breathing body that needed to be nurtured and protected.

The industrial revolution drastically changed the relationship between economic activity and environment. By 19th century, industrial pollution had been identified as a serious problem. This was mostly due to energy requirements of iron industry and led to local and ultimately, more widespread pollution. Although it was considered a serious problem, it was not given high priority. Social problems, infectious diseases and unsafe water supplies were the main health concerns at that time.

Until the late 19th century, the causes of fever, pestilence and plague were still unknown. Odors and emanations were still considered responsible, just as in ancient Greece. Gradually, other theories were introduced, like "germ theory", which enabled Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch to prove the existence of bacteria and how they caused diseases. By the end of 19th century, the transmission of diseases via insects was also identified. This meant that new ways could be found to fight disease and resolve health problems.

In the late 19th century, there occurred a growing awareness of the importance of environment. During the 1860's both USA and Great Britain passed laws aimed at protecting the environment. Early environmental movements tended to be led by professionals such as foresters, who were interested in preservation and management of land and resources. In 1892, the Sierra Club, USA's oldest and largest environmental organization was founded with John Muir as president. Their first campaign was an effort to defeat a proposed reduction in the boundaries of Yosemite National Park under slogan that: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike" (John Muir 1912).

During the 20th century, a growth in demand increased the volume of hazardous materials and further increased pollution. This trend caused a massive public revolt in many parts of the world. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book "The Silent Spring", where she detailed some of the dangers that pesticides could have for the environment and human health, and raised public awareness of alternative ways of perceiving human health in relation to environment. During 60's and 70's there was a major expansion of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace lobbying for clean water, air and preserving of wilderness.

However, global warming was not adequately discussed. It appears that there was not enough political will to address global warming issues. Authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their book "The Death of Environmentalism" (2004) debate about environmental movements not being efficient enough to motivate a national debate; e.g. using low emission vehicles or energy-efficient light-bulbs is neither inspiring nor comprehensive enough and are unlikely to be successful. They think that the answer to the problem is selling the solution rather than focusing on the problem itself. The solution may be support for an economy based on new energies, not fossil fuels. It would reduce dependence on oil, air pollution and bring more jobs. Investment in this strategy would allow a better use of accessible resources than what the conventional environmentalists suggest.