The irrefutable relationship of health with environment

Parul Budhraja Khanna

Our environment plays a pivotal role in our biological – both physical and psychological – development. Undoubtedly, there is an environmental influence in regard to human development, and although the influences on the majority of our lives may be much subtler, they are certainly present.

Dr. Pampa Sarkar, an obstetrician and gynecologist from the UK says: “One of the times when we are most susceptible to the influences of our surrounding environment is when we are developing as a foetus in our mother’s womb”. Another professor – from California – Dr. Pathik Wadhwa asserts: “When the mother is stressed, several biological changes occur, including elevation of stress hormones and increased likelihood of intrauterine infection.

“The foetus builds itself permanently to deal with this kind of high-stress environment, and once it’s born it may be at greater risk from a whole bunch of stress-related pathologies.” It’s within the first three months of pregnancy that the tissues and important body systems are developing in embryo, and negative influences on the environment of the womb will have detrimental impacts on basic structure and form of the body.

This can also lead to serious effects on the nervous system. For instance, rubella contracted during the first trimester of pregnancy is likely to result in a child with abnormalities such as: heart disease, cataracts, deafness, or mental retardation. An educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson annotates: “You cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is like a farmer create the conditions under which it will begin to flourish”.

Environment – value of nature in relation to health

Evidence from a wide range of studies suggests that being in or near to nature helps individuals to meet daily exercise requirements and also contributes to stress reduction and lowering of blood pressure and heart rate. Depressive disorders are the leading cause of disability in middle to high income countries, rendering mental health and wellbeing a critical modern public health issue. Natural spaces aid stress reduction.

Since the earliest times, humans have needed to be sensitive to their surroundings to survive, which means that we have an innate awareness of our environment and seek out environments with certain qualities. The surroundings in which people live affect their health. The air that we breathe, the water we drink, and our ability to enjoy the outdoors are all important to quality of life. Air and water quality, public safety, the houses in which people live, and the availability of parks and green space all contribute to an individual’s health status.

There is consistent evidence that adults who live in walkable communities walk and cycle more for transportation, and have higher levels of total physical activity, than those who live in low-walkable suburban areas. Connections between built environments – i.e. man-made surroundings – and physical activity have been documented for children and adolescents. Living in proximity to parks and other recreation facilities, as well as high aesthetic qualities, has been associated with higher physical activity among youth. This can be interpreted as suggesting that children need suitable places to play near their homes. Since the turn of the 21st century, research on the built environment has become a recognised field, and consensus is rapidly developing about what kinds of built-environment changes are needed to improve physical activity in whole populations.

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Destructive ramifications of toxic environment

The environment plays a powerful role in the transmission of infectious diseases, including vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and human African trypanosomiasis. It is therefore of huge significance to public health strategies around the world. Two particularly important aspects are socio-ecological systems and climate change.

Growing evidence suggests that climate change will have substantial impact on already vulnerable populations. For instance, changes such as increased rainfall can affect African drylands and so increase the burden of water-related vector-borne diseases in areas already susceptible to poverty.

Research to improve our understanding of environmental drivers of infectious disease can lead to improved vector control measures and disease prevention. Research also needs to explore how policies of health, environment and development can best be aligned, since many vector control and disease prevention measures require action by sectors such as water, agriculture and sanitation; areas outside of the traditional domain of health services.

People living near industrial sites may have to deal with pollution in the air, water or ground that can lead to health problems. According to the American Heart Association, exposure to pollution contributes to heart disease and stroke. This may be especially true for elderly patients and people who have other complicating factors such as diabetes or underlying lung disease.

Perfluorinated compounds – such as PFOA, which is found in items such as non-stick frying pans – appear to be linked to thyroid disorders and pesticides-exposure may be associated with the development of type 2 diabetes.

In urban areas, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are major pollutants contained in automobile emissions. Indoor air quality must also be considered when talking about air pollution and its consequences on health. Secondhand smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke, is the single largest contributor to indoor air pollution.

Legal and policy changes need to be in place to help reduce exposure to secondhand smoke. Since the use of natural settings can be shown to be directly linked to improvements in health, and reduced use of costly healthcare services, then hopefully policymakers will make greater efforts to reconnect the public with nature.

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Exposure to environmental chemicals are resulting in changes in the incidence and patterns of diseases on global scales!

The quality of our lives continues to be affected by a wide range of diseases, creating disability, reducing our wellbeing and generating an increasing financial burden as treatment costs soar. Diseases such as diabetes, depression and dementia have all been linked to some degree to exposure to environmental triggers, eventually limiting further increase in our lifespan.

Another factor that has hindered with our habitat is the enormous progress that has been made in the use of pharmaceuticals. Yes, a wide variety of diseases can now be treated successfully – or better still, avoided through the use of drugs. For example, a range of cancers, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and metabolic disorders. The older members of the population (over-50s) are given a combination of drugs to ward off hypertension, diabetes and strokes.

However, later in life when medicines are taken, they are often not wholly broken down in our bodies. The metabolites that are generated remain biologically active. Consequently, a significant proportion of drugs and their residues are excreted into the sewage system. Most sewage treatments do not break down the pharmaceutical waste products which are then discharged into the environment, potentially causing ecological damage.

#BeatPlasticPollution – Free lesson for Ghana and other African nations from Rwanda

This year, the theme for the World Environment Day is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ – to raise awareness and urge governments, industries, communities and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce the production and use of single-use plastic that pollutes oceans, damages marine life and threatens human health. Rwanda has gone well beyond the appearance of an average African country. It has risen from the ashes of a genocidal episode with a unique opportunity to restart – and is empowered to achieve extraordinary things.

When you land at Kigali airport, you are greeted by a large sign that says “The use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited”. Rwanda’s battle against global warming by banning the use of plastic is exemplary. It is leading the cause for all nations to follow and take inspiration from. We need greener and cleaner neighborhoods for further evolution of human societies, to lead healthier lives and stronger economies.

“The Earth doesn’t belong to us: we belong to the earth” – Marlee Matlin. Let’s ingrain this saying in our heads and take good care of our mother planet!


The writer is an Entrepreneurial Biotechnologist and passionate about creating awareness among the masses and steering a tangible change in healthcare delivery systems.

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