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Impact Lives

Environmental Influence on Public Health

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The environment affects a population’s health in many different ways. Extensive studies of the interaction between health and the environment have shown a significant impact of ecological factors on the state of public health.

Public Health and the Environment

While the environmental impact on the development of disease and death cannot be exactly pinpointed, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 13 million deaths can be attributed to preventable environmental causes each year. The study also suggests that 24 percent of global disease cases and 23 percent of all deaths occur as a result of environmental elements. While the numbers by country are not equally divided, the effect of the environment on public health is a global concern, particularly in relation to air and water pollution.

Air Pollution

The WHO estimates a mortality rate of 800,000 individuals per year due to the effects of air pollution, which also causes significant respiratory disease and sickness in children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contributes air contamination sickness to six pollutants:

  • Ozone – While the public has been informed of a diminishing ozone layer for years, most do not recognize that ground level ozone, or “bad ozone,” is a mixture of chemical reactions between nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) when in the presence of sunlight. The main sources for NOx and VOC are emissions from electrical utilities, automobile exhaust, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents.
  • Particulate matter – Tiny particles of matter and liquid droplets form to create particulate matter, comprised mainly of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, soil or dust particles and metals. The size of these particles determines their danger. Inhalable coarse particles are found near roads and near industrial areas. Fine particles are created from smoke or haze, forming when gases from power plants and cars mix with the air. They can also be formed from forest fires.
  • Carbon monoxide – A deadly gas invisible to sight or smell, carbon monoxide is formed when certain fuels, such as coal, wood, propane or charcoal, are not burned to completion. CO is also produced by cars, but an average 170 people die every year in America from non-automotive CO exposure.
  • Nitrogen dioxide – NO2 is a quick-forming gas produced by automobiles and power plants, and it is a significant contributor to ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution. High levels of exposure can cause pulmonary edema and lung injury.
  • Sulfur dioxide – Primarily created by power plants (73 percent) using fossil fuel combustion, SO2 can cause respiratory diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease.
  • Lead – Found naturally and caused by automobile emission, lead most commonly creates neurological and cardiovascular health issues in children and adults. However, it can also affect the nervous, immune, reproductive and developmental systems.

Water Pollution

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently reported that 783 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. Seventy percent of the earth’s makeup is comprised of water. Polluted water affects plant and marine life consumed by humans and serves as a breeding ground for microbial organisms that cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Water pollution is caused by:

  • Untreated sewage and wastewater – With a world population of more than 7 billion, sewage treatment is a priority for controlling the contamination of water. Untreated sewage water spreads disease and in some cases can cause death.
  • Marine dumping – Trash and waste products dumped into the ocean can cause harm to marine life and humans. From cardboard to Styrofoam to plastic packaging, waste dumped into the earth’s oceans causes depletion in oxygen for animal life and causes toxicity in the fish consumed by people.
  • Industrial waste – Freshwater is used to carry waste away from industrial plants and factories, and with that comes the transfer of pollutants such as asbestos, lead, mercury, nitrates, phosphates and sulfur. The result for humans is cancer, mesothelioma, mercury poisoning and other deadly illnesses.
  • Nuclear waste – Nuclear waste is a product of industrial, medical and scientific processes that utilize radioactive material, such as operations involving nuclear material, uranium and thorium mining and refining. The results of nuclear waste pollution in water are genetic mutation, cancer, leukemia, birth defects and other human body system maladies.
  • Oil pollution – Oil pollution includes petroleum-based oils, such as crude or refined oils. Non-petroleum based oils, include animal fat and vegetable oil. The effects on human health that result from inhaling or touching oil waste or consuming seafood that has been contaminated can include cancer, lung disease and rash and other skin irritation./li>
  • Atmospheric deposition – Water becomes polluted from atmospheric deposition, which is a mixture of gases and particles released from combustion sources that contain nitrogen, sulfur and metal compounds. Also known as acid rain, the impact on human health includes lung disease and death.
  • Eutrophication – Eutrophication occurs when a body of water experiences an increased concentration of organic matter, specifically phosphates and nitrates. This causes detrimental effects on human health, including the growth of harmful algal blooms in water that cause toxicity in aquatic life ingested by humans.

Reaction to Environmental Pollutions

In recent years, the world has responded to pollution with strong determination, and America has developed plans of action to fight for healthier life for every citizen. Many environmental campaigns have been developed, including:

  • The American Lung Association has started viable efforts in the battle against air pollution, including educating the public on clean air tactics and preventative measures.
  • The Clean Air Act, enforced by the U.S. government, is estimated to have saved more than 160,000 lives in 2010 and is about to celebrate its 43rd anniversary of helping Americans breathe easier. In addition to other regulations, the act limits automobile and aircraft emissions.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council is working to regulate water systems in America and control water pollution.
  • Various “Go green” efforts have risen in the country to promote recycling and the proper disposal of waste materials. The mantra of “Reduce, reuse, recycle” encourages lessening waste materials by conserving and recycling.

As the earth’s population continues to grow, environmental pollution will continue to prove an opponent to public health. However, preventative measures are available and America will continue to push for a healthier environment through pollution solutions.

Related Benedictine Programs

Discover how you can help impact environmental issues affecting global health today with the Online Master of Public Health degree from Benedictine University. The Benedictine program prepares students with the advanced knowledge and expertise necessary for leading public health organizations.