Better health through increased environmental health

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Reducing the exposure of populations to pollution and unsafe resources by preserving biodiversity will increase collective overall health.

How do we arm ourselves against future pandemics? There’s no one perfect solution, but nature might hold part of the answer. In a new report, the OECD takes a step back from COVID-19’s immediate health and economic impacts to think about environmental health and its long-term effects on resilience to pandemics. It might seem like a stretch to relate our health to the planet’s, but they are deeply intertwined.

A healthy environment makes for healthy people. If we succeed in reducing our exposure to air pollution, toxins, unsafe water and contaminated food while also preserving biodiversity, we should increase collective health and decrease our vulnerability to disease.

As such, the environment also has a significant impact on businesses and the overall economy. Less environment-related illnesses means fewer sick days, increased wellbeing at work and thus higher productivity. A healthier population also means less expenses for medical care, both for individuals and for governments.

Take air pollution, for instance. Both outdoors and indoors, that is the number one environment-related cause of death worldwide. The WHO estimates that 90% of the worlds’ population is exposed to high levels of air pollutants. A 2017 study estimated that in Europe economic benefits from cleaner air could outweigh the investment needed by at least 14-to-1!

Biodiversity and ecosystem services are another area where better environmental health benefits human health as well as the economy. It’s often human disturbances to ecosystem that help spread diseases in crops, animals and finally humans. Many businesses and industries also rely on biodiversity and ecosystem services for their activities.

We’ve also been washing our hands enough to know that water plays a key role in health. Access to clean water and sanitation are a crucial component to public health and resilience, both to secure food supplies and to limit the spread of diseases.

Image by JuniperPhoton on Unsplash

It seems like COVID-19 is actually relieving our impact on the planet. CO2 emissions have dropped to a historic low, canals in Venice clear blue, whales and dolphins have reclaimed harbours they had deserted years ago. By reducing air pollution, the deadly coronavirus might also save some lives in China. This might make for great headlines but these effects are likely temporary. The 2008 economic crisis had similar ecological impacts, but immediately after the crisis, C02 emissions spiked. If we want to see a lasting impact, systemic changes are urgently needed.