UNEP

HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT LINKAGES

A STRATEGIC ALLIANCE
TO UNLEASH PRACTICAL ACTION

ACHIM STEINER © CICR

“In recognizing the links between health and
environment, we can motivate policy makers
to address the root causes of environmental
degradation more assertively, preserve our planet’s
ecosystems and ensure better health and
wellbeing for all peoples, in both developing
and developed regions of the world”.

ACHIM STEINER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME (UNEP)
Version française

The links between environment and health are gathering new momentum in 2009 as a result of fresh findings on the impacts of chemicals and mounting evidence on the impacts of climate change including the spread of diseases such as malaria.

The renewed interest in chemicals and health has in part been triggered by findings from Japan and the United States under the Italian G8 presidency.

Congenital abnormalities such as spina bifida and Down’s syndrome in Japan have doubled over the past quarter century and immune system impairment has tripled among kindergarten to high school children over the last twenty years.

Meanwhile rates of obesity, with a suspected link to disruption of young peoples’ metabolic and hormone systems, have climbed 150 per cent in thirty years and the number of boys being born has fallen since the 1970s.

Experts suspect a wide range of substances may be part of this observed phenomenon, from chemicals that mimic the female hormone oestrogen to ones that block male androgen hormones up to exposure from heavy metals such as mercury.

There is also a link to the climate change agenda with evidence that some of the suspect chemicals–known as persistent organic pollutants such as the pesticide DDT–are being re-released from Arctic ice and mountain glaciers as they melt.

The warming of lakes may also be re-releasing old mercury, locked in sediments, back into the environment.The links between the degradation of ecosystems and the re-emergence of old and emergence of new diseases are also coming to the fore.

In western Kenya, researchers have linked a rise in malaria with deforestation that is reducing the number of natural mosquito predators such as dragonflies and beetles while creating new habitats for mosquito larvae. Nipah virus is an example of new human disease that emerged in the late 1990s.
A combination of forest fires in Sumatra and the clearance of natural forests in Malaysia for palm plantations may have forced fruit bats into urban areas, putting them in closer contact with pigs from where Nipah spread to humans.

© CICR Restoring degraded habitats may also have important health, as well as environmental benefits–the loss of wetlands means many migratory birds are forced onto farm ponds and paddy fields putting them in contact with domesticated fowl and increasing the risk of avian viruses spreading.

Restoring wetlands would diminish that possibility while also increasing water storage and water purification sites and locations for fish and other important biodiversity.

It is a similar story for other ecosystems such as forests. Rehabilitating them can not only improve public health in terms of reducing the spread of diseases, but can deliver multiple benefits in terms of water supplies, carbon sequestration, soil stabilization and conservation of wild foods, medicines and genetic resources.

Thus investing in ecosystems can assist in achieving the health, environmental and ultimately poverty-related Millennium Development Goals.

Effective action on the links between environment and health requires and requests a new level of understanding and commitment on this virtuous circle.

We need to address the root causes of ill health rather than simply treating the symptoms.

We need also to recognize that real change will only occur when policies regarding environment, health and economic development are designed in concert rather than in parallel.

UNEP and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a ten-year partnership which is now rapidly evolving to encompass the scientific evidence on environmental health and public health.

Part of this includes advancing understanding on the role of healthy ecosystems in human health alongside the emerging science on other environmental hazards and the scope for transformative action.

To date, regional processes involving ministries of health and environment in Europe, in the Americas and in Asia have taken place and are already catalyzing joint discussions and actions at the national level.

UNEP and WHO also recently jointly organized the first Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa with the support of the Government of Gabon.

This has spawned strategic alliances between numerous health and environment ministries on the Continent which in turn are stimulating the institutional, policy and investment reforms needed while also developing policies on ecosystem conservation.

The success of these initiatives will depend on building capacity at country level alongside mobilizing a wide range of economic actors.

There are multiple financial, social and environmental reasons for reducing pollution, combating climate change and improved, more intelligent management of ecosystems – human health including children’s health is rapidly emerging as yet another fundamental one.

 
© 1949-2009 UN Special