Environment and health, clarifying the links
Summer of 2007, residents around many lakes in Quebec see their access to water restricted due to a proliferation of cyanobacteria. Summer 2012, the contamination of a cooling tower in Quebec City causes an epidemic of legionellosis – a potentially fatal lung disease — affecting 181 people and causing the deaths of 13 of them. June 2013, at least eight schools were closed in the province of Quebec because of mold. Health authorities suspected this might be the cause of health problems reported by a significant percentage of teachers, staff and students from these schools.
These highly publicized events are not specific to Quebec. Thousands of deaths were attributed to the European heat wave of 2003 and we do not fully measure yet the impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on population health.
There is no doubt, the environement in which we live and operate affects our health. That includes the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the products we are exposed to. And it is such potential impact that environmental health researchers and public health workers are trying to measure, monitor, and if necessary, prevent from occuring.
While reports on environmental health hazards are increasingly prominent in the media, little is known about the research and intervention efforts put forward to document the relationship between environment and health. How do we measure the effects of exposure to contaminants in the human body? How do we determine levels of risk? How do climate changes affect our health? What innovative solutions do we deploy to address or prevent health damages caused by environmental factors? In this new dossier, the Hinnovic team explores the vast field of environmental health.
Knowledge that matters
In recent decades, the development of increasingly sophisticated laboratories and technologies has enabled characterizing a growing number of products and imagining the ways in which they may interact with the body. For instance, we know that environmental factors can affect the expression of genes, and that this new expression can be transmitted to the next generation (Genuis, 2012). This is just one example of what environmental health research has brought to light. To learn more about such accomplishments, listen to our interview with Sami Haddad, Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Montreal.
Environmental health has also established clear links between environmental factors and diseases such as respiratory infections, cancer or cardiovascular problems. Cardiologist and professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Montreal, François Reeves provides an eloquent demonstration of the impact of air quality on our cardiovascular health.
Environmental health has also demonstrated the link between heat waves and increased risk of mortality. But how can we protect ourselves from natural phenomena on which we have no control? Audrey Smargiassi and her team have developed statistical models that predict the temperature variations within a city and according to type of building. This helps identify heat islands accurately and to intervene directly with the people most likely to be affected by heat waves and for whom risks are higher.
While identifying the environmental factors that may affect health is essential, health authorities are also concerned with finding solutions to reduce or prevent health damages caused by the environment. However, the task is complex because the solutions rely on public policy and other green prescriptions. One must adopt a long-term perspective, mobilize and involve multiple stakeholders from a variety of disciplines and sectors. This is exactly what contributors to this dossier have managed to do.
Community engagement staff from the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center partnered with two community organizations to develop a fascinating educational project: their aim was to empower the local population in the reduction of home-based environmental exposures. To reduce lead poisoning — a problem that was affecting the health of residents in several neighborhoods of Rochester (New York State, USA), they set up a museum. It did not only raise awareness of environmental hazards, but it also provided accessible solutions to eradicate them. Valerie Garrison and Katrina Korfmacher summarize the objectives and outcomes of this project.
Closer to home, the Montreal Urban Ecology Center, a non-profit organization, mobilizes citizens around innovative solutions to counter the adverse effects on population health of an urban planning model that emphasizes concrete and cars. Mark Anto, Director of Strategic Development, explains how urban agriculture and the greening of neighborhoods can contribute to citizens’ health and quality of life in the context of climate changes.
Hope you appreciate those green prescriptions!
|Author :||Myriam Hivon, Ph.D.
Genuis, S.J. 2012. What’s out there making us sick? Journal of Environnemental and Public Health, Volume 2012, Article ID 605137, 10 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2012/605137.