Relationship of human health to the environment

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Reviewed: June 17, 2024

Visitor Question:Are people healthy if the environment is healthier?

Editors' Reply: A healthy environment tends to lead to healthier people, although we would hasten to add that none of us are medical professionals. Also many health problems can't be attributed directly or indirectly to the environment.

Both genetics and lifestyle choices (the buzz word now for thinks like whether you exercise or are sedentary, your diet, your use of tobacco, alcohol, or other substances) are very important to human health.

Here's what we do know about how environmental sustainability benefits human health:

1. Cleaner air, resulting from fewer emissions from cars, buses, industrial processes, and so forth, improves human health through a lesser incidence of lung disease, asthma, and allergy-like symptoms.

2. Clean drinking water, and reasonably clean water for bathing, are very important in preventing certain diseases and symptoms such as chronic diarrhea. In this context, "clean" means lacking in obvious pollutants, such as human or animal waste, but also free of heavy metals and other chemicals detrimental to human health. A low count of bacteria also is very important.

Of course now we're finding that we're victims of our own cleverness. Hormones from animals that are being dosed with hormones so they will grow to become food faster are being found in our water, and are thought to be possible causes of early puberty.

Also our own pharmaceuticals that are disposed of in a way that allows them to find their way into the water supply may be decreasing the effectiveness of those drugs.

3. If the environment is healthy in the sense of promoting active transportation, such as walking, bicycling, or rollerblading for transportation, people will get more exercise than they will if they ride in a motorized vehicle.

Some built environments are much easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate through, because there are sidewalks, bicycle lanes or separated facilities, and so on. Also on our site we promote mixed-use development buildings or complexes, density in urban areas, and other policies that prevent or counteract sprawl.

The relationship between urban sprawl and public health is receiving an increasing amount of recognition.

4. Energy conservation helps produce healthier humans because the most common forms of energy production also produce major pollution. For example, coal-fired electrical generation creates a considerable amount of air pollution (despite talk of "clean coal").

5. Air pollution is thought to lead to both ozone depletion and global warming. Each of these can harm human health if no adaptations are made.

6. Lastly, we'll simply mention that biodiversity, which means having a wide variety of healthy species of plants and animals, enriches many people's lives and gives them satisfaction--certainly a healthy experience.

In addition, since many pharmaceuticals are developed from plant materials, a healthy degree of biodiversity probably increases the odds that we will find cures for some of the major diseases.

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