The intersection between health and our environment is coming sharply into focus. This is most evident with air pollution and climate change.
There is growing evidence of the negative effect air pollution is having on our health, from increasing the risk of dementia and heart and lung disease to premature births and infant mortality. Air pollution is now the biggest environmental health risk in Europe and the WHO estimates globally 7 million people are dying every year because of dirty air.
Extreme weather events linked to climate change – floods, droughts, wildfires – this year have taken too many lives, often affecting the most vulnerable in society in many countries across the world. Climate also changes how vector-borne diseases, known and unknown, may spread.
When we damage the earth, we damage our health. The health gains from a clean environment have long been known. High profile organisations including the Wellcome Trust, The Lancet and The Rockefeller Foundation are working hard to strengthen our understanding of the link between our environment and health.
But, from pollution and plastics to obesity and antibiotic resistance, governments and the private sector are still moving too slowly, seemingly waiting for an even more acute crisis to act. The economic costs of our inaction will be borne for a long time. Putting pressure on both mature health systems that are under increasing cost pressures and more fragile health infrastructures yet to fully develop.
We need a broader view of health built on the foundation of universal health coverage and delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals that sees the right to health not just coming from access to medicine and healthcare facilities (where many efforts might focus on SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages), but through access to sustainable and flourishing environments and communities.
How we choose to respond to environmental challenges and changes could well determine how effectively we are able to manage endemic and emerging global health risks in the future.