Health and the environment

21 Apr 2008

How much does the environment affect human health? Are air pollution and tainted water shortening our lives and those of our children? These questions have aroused increasing interest in recent years, particularly since the adoption of Agenda 21 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, which drew the attention of policy makers to the links between health and the environment.

Air pollution is one obvious environmental health threat in OECD countries, contributing to a number of illnesses, such as asthma and in some cases leading to premature death. Of particular concern is the fact that children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults, and increased rates of infant mortality have been recorded in highly polluted areas.

Concerns about the impact of air pollution on health and the economy have resulted in measures to mitigate emissions of the most harmful pollutants, such as particle pollution (acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles) and ozone, which affects the respiratory system. Despite national and international interventions and decreases in major pollutant emissions, the health impacts of air pollution are not likely to decrease in the years ahead, unless appropriate action is taken.

Water is another key environmental health issue – unsafe drinking water and untreated waste water kill thousands of people a year, most of them children.

Other health issues associated with emerging environmental hazards, such as chemical products, will also need to be addressed. Chemical products are used in virtually every man-made product and play an important role in the everyday life of people around the world. However, harmful exposure to chemical products can lead to health problems such as skin diseases, chronic bronchitis, nervous system dysfunctions and cancers as well as damaging the environment. This Policy Brief proposes some answers as well as possible policy directions.

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