Environment and Health concerns those aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined by physical, biological, social and psychosocial factors in the environment. The promotion of good health requires not only public policies which support health, but also the creation of supportive environments in which living and working conditions are safe, stimulating and enjoyable.
Health has driven much of environmental policy since the work of Edwin Chadwick in the early 1840s. The ﬁrst British public-health act was introduced in 1848 to improve housing and sanitation with subsequent provision of puriﬁed water, clean milk, food hygiene regulations, vaccinations and antibiotics. In the 21st century there are now many additional environmental factors that must be monitored, researched and controlled if risks to human health are to be well managed and the impact on human morbidity and mortality reduced.
Environmental impacts on health include:
loss of amenities
Environmental risk factors Many of the major determinants of health, disease and death are environmental risk factors. Some are natural hazards; others are generated by human activities. They may be directly harmful, as in the examples of exposure to toxic chemicals at work, pesticides, or air pollution from road transport, or to radon gas penetrating domestic properties. Environmental factors may also alter people’s susceptibility to disease: for example, the availability of suﬃcient food. In addition, they may operate by making unhealthy choices more likely, such as the availability and aﬀord-ability of junk foods, alcohol, illegal drugs or tobacco.
Populations at risk Children are among the populations most sensitive to environmental health hazards. Their routine exposure to toxic chemicals in homes and communities can put their health at risk. Central to the ability to protect communities and families is the right of people to know about toxic substances. For many, the only source of environmental information is media reporting, which often leaves the public confused and frustrated. To beneﬁt from public access to information, increasingly via the Internet, people need basic environmental and health information, resources for interpreting, understanding and evaluating health risks, and familiarity with strategies for prevention or reduction of risk.
Risk assessment Environmental health experts rely on the principles of environmental toxicology and risk assessment to evaluate the environment and the potential eﬀects on individual and community health. Key actions include:
identifying sources and routes of environmental exposure and recommending methods of reducing environmental health risks, such as exposure to heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, dioxins, etc.
assessing the risks of exposure-related health hazards.
alerting health professionals, the public, and the media to the levels of risk for particular potential hazards and the reasons for interventions.
ensuring that doctors and scientists explain the results of environmental monitoring studies – for example, the results of water ﬂuoridation in the UK to improve dental health.
National policies In the United Kingdom in 1996, an important step in linking environment and health was taken by a government-initiated joint consultation by the Departments of Health and Environment about adding ‘environment’ as a key area within the Health of the Nation strategy. The ﬁrst UK Minister of State for Public Health was appointed in 1997 with responsibilities for health promotion and public-health issues, both generally and within the NHS. These responsibilities include the implementation of the Health of the Nation strategy and its successor, Our Healthy Nation. The aim is to raise the priority given to human health throughout government departments, and to make health and environmental impact assessment a routine part of the making, implementing and assessing the impact of policies.
Global environmental risks The scope of many environmental threats to human health are international and cannot be regulated eﬀectively on a local, regional or even national basis. One example is the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, which led to a major release of radiation, the eﬀects of which were felt in many countries. Some international action has already been taken to tackle global environmental problems, but governments should routinely measure the overall impacts of development on people and their environments and link with industry to reduce damage to the environment. For instance, the eﬀects of global warming and pollution on health should be assessed within an ecological framework if communities are to respond eﬀectively to potential new global threats to the environment.