Let’s look at sustainability in terms of how our practices affect human health, both immediately and over the long term. Whether we call them health problems or environmental problems, though, the prescription for corrective actions is almost identical. The health lens is particularly appropriate because it states the impacts in terms of human health, rather than more abstract or remote concepts such as resource depletion rates or ‘the environment’ or loss of biodiversity. And the public health lens also is comfortable with both long- and short-term impacts where cause and effect may not be obvious. In fact, the public health field has long recognized ‘environmental health’ as part of its mission—although it is not implemented well in actual practice.
One of the core ideas of the public health field is to focus on issues that affect large numbers of people and to focus on prevention rather than treatment; this too is very appropriate for looking at sustainability issues.
‘Public health is ‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.’ —C. Winslow, founder of the Yale School of Public Health
And what are the biggest threats to human health? Especially here in the U.S., there is plenty of evidence that our unsustainable practices are the ‘elephant in the room’—the largest threat to human health. We routinely consume vast quantities of resources, produce millions of tons of waste, and condone processes that have a serious impact on health. We need prevention, not more ‘treatment’.
Let’s take a quick look at the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat:
Air – Our vehicles spew nitrous oxides that react with VOCs and sunlight to produce ground-level ozone; trucks, buses, trains, and cars produce vast quantities of Diesel soot and other toxins with serious health impacts every year. Our air is polluted with industrial chemicals and volatile organic compounds used in household and industrial products. Coal-burning power plants fill the area with mercury and sulfur compounds. Right here in the Lehigh Valley, such pollutants causes hundreds of avoidable deaths and tens of thousands of other acute and chronic health impacts.
More info on Diesel pollution and childhood asthma in the Lehigh Valley.
Food – Much of the food we consume was produced in ways that contribute to air and water pollution and to soil depletion, over-processing also harms people’s health. When food production focuses on convenience and profit, the public health impacts are very serious. Our food typically contains traces of pesticides and additives; has low nutrient density; contains high-fructose corn syrup and excess sugars, fats, and salt. With meat, poultry, and dairy, hormones and antibiotics are used to maximize production [over 85% of antibiotics are used for animal production]. The major health impacts of all these practices are known but largely ignored.
More info on the impacts of industrial food production and institutional food service.
Water – In addition to direct water pollution from farming, industry, and vehicles, we also have pollution from billions of discarded plastic bottles and bags, agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that are improperly handled. As a result, when we take a drink of water, we get not only H2O, but an assortment of pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disruptors, and other toxins. The serious health impacts are clear and well-documented. These threats have increased dramatically in connection with drilling and fracking [hydraulic fracturing] in the Marcellus Shale.
More info on impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
The health impacts of these unsustainable practices are both immediate and long-term and they affect a huge number of people. They demand a public health response, a community health response.