Lora Fleming, Niccolò Tempini, Harriet Gordon-Brown, Gordon L. Nichols, Christophe Sarran, Paolo Vineis, Giovanni Leonardi, Brian Golding, Andy Haines, Anthony Kessel, Virginia Murray, Michael Depledge, and Sabina Leonelli
Big data refers to large, complex, potentially linkable data from diverse sources, ranging from the genome and social media, to individual health information and the contributions of citizen science monitoring, to large-scale long-term oceanographic and climate modeling and its processing in innovative and integrated “data mashups.” Over the past few decades, thanks to the rapid expansion of computer technology, there has been a growing appreciation for the potential of big data in environment and human health research.
The promise of big data mashups in environment and human health includes the ability to truly explore and understand the “wicked environment and health problems” of the 21st century, from tracking the global spread of the Zika and Ebola virus epidemics to modeling future climate change impacts and adaptation at the city or national level. Other opportunities include the possibility of identifying environment and health hot spots (i.e., locations where people and/or places are at particular risk), where innovative interventions can be designed and evaluated to prevent or adapt to climate and other environmental change over the long term with potential (co-) benefits for health; and of locating and filling gaps in existing knowledge of relevant linkages between environmental change and human health. There is the potential for the increasing control of personal data (both access to and generation of these data), benefits to health and the environment (e.g., from smart homes and cities), and opportunities to contribute via citizen science research and share information locally and globally.
At the same time, there are challenges inherent with big data and data mashups, particularly in the environment and human health arena. Environment and health represent very diverse scientific areas with different research cultures, ethos, languages, and expertise. Equally diverse are the types of data involved (including time and spatial scales, and different types of modeled data), often with no standardization of the data to allow easy linkage beyond time and space variables, as data types are mostly shaped by the needs of the communities where they originated and have been used. Furthermore, these “secondary data” (i.e., data re-used in research) are often not even originated for this purpose, a particularly relevant distinction in the context of routine health data re-use. And the ways in which the research communities in health and environmental sciences approach data analysis and synthesis, as well as statistical and mathematical modeling, are widely different.
There is a lack of trained personnel who can span these interdisciplinary divides or who have the necessary expertise in the techniques that make adequate bridging possible, such as software development, big data management and storage, and data analyses. Moreover, health data have unique challenges due to the need to maintain confidentiality and data privacy for the individuals or groups being studied, to evaluate the implications of shared information for the communities affected by research and big data, and to resolve the long-standing issues of intellectual property and data ownership occurring throughout the environment and health fields. As with other areas of big data, the new “digital data divide” is growing, where some researchers and research groups, or corporations and governments, have the access to data and computing resources while others do not, even as citizen participation in research initiatives is increasing. Finally with the exception of some business-related activities, funding, especially with the aim of encouraging the sustainability and accessibility of big data resources (from personnel to hardware), is currently inadequate; there is widespread disagreement over what business models can support long-term maintenance of data infrastructures, and those that exist now are often unable to deal with the complexity and resource-intensive nature of maintaining and updating these tools.
Nevertheless, researchers, policy makers, funders, governments, the media, and members of the general public are increasingly recognizing the innovation and creativity potential of big data in environment and health and many other areas. This can be seen in how the relatively new and powerful movement of Open Data is being crystalized into science policy and funding guidelines. Some of the challenges and opportunities, as well as some salient examples, of the potential of big data and big data mashup applications to environment and human health research are discussed.
George Morris and Patrick Saunders
Most people today readily accept that their health and disease are products of personal characteristics such as their age, gender, and genetic inheritance; the choices they make; and, of course, a complex array of factors operating at the level of society. Individuals frequently have little or no control over the cultural, economic, and social influences that shape their lives and their health and well-being. The environment that forms the physical context for their lives is one such influence and comprises the places where people live, learn work, play, and socialize, the air they breathe, and the food and water they consume. Interest in the physical environment as a component of human health goes back many thousands of years and when, around two and a half millennia ago, humans started to write down ideas about health, disease, and their determinants, many of these ideas centered on the physical environment.
The modern public health movement came into existence in the 19th century as a response to the dreadful unsanitary conditions endured by the urban poor of the Industrial Revolution. These conditions nurtured disease, dramatically shortening life. Thus, a public health movement that was ultimately to change the health and prosperity of millions of people across the world was launched on an “environmental conceptualization” of health. Yet, although the physical environment, especially in towns and cities, has changed dramatically in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, so too has our understanding of the relationship between the environment and human health and the importance we attach to it.
The decades immediately following World War II were distinguished by declining influence for public health as a discipline. Health and disease were increasingly “individualized”—a trend that served to further diminish interest in the environment, which was no longer seen as an important component in the health concerns of the day. Yet, as the 20th century wore on, a range of factors emerged to r-establish a belief in the environment as a key issue in the health of Western society. These included new toxic and infectious threats acting at the population level but also the renaissance of a “socioecological model” of public health that demanded a much richer and often more subtle understanding of how local surroundings might act to both improve and damage human health and well-being.
Yet, just as society has begun to shape a much more sophisticated response to reunite health with place and, with this, shape new policies to address complex contemporary challenges, such as obesity, diminished mental health, and well-being and inequities, a new challenge has emerged. In its simplest terms, human activity now seriously threatens the planetary processes and systems on which humankind depends for health and well-being and, ultimately, survival. Ecological public health—the need to build health and well-being, henceforth on ecological principles—may be seen as the society’s greatest 21st-century imperative. Success will involve nothing less than a fundamental rethink of the interplay between society, the economy, and the environment. Importantly, it will demand an environmental conceptualization of the public health as no less radical than the environmental conceptualization that launched modern public health in the 19th century, only now the challenge presents on a vastly extended temporal and spatial scale.
Hans Keune and Timo Assmuth
Framing and dealing with complexity are crucially important in environment and human health science, policy, and practice. Complexity is a key feature of most environment and human health issues, which by definition include aspects of the environment and human health, both of which constitute complex phenomena. The number and range of factors that may play a role in an environment and human health issue are enormous, and the issues have a multitude of characteristics and consequences. Framing this complexity is crucial because it will involve key decisions about what to take into account when addressing environment and human health issues and how to deal with them. This is not merely a technical process of scientific framing, but also a methodological decision-making process with both scientific and societal implications. In general, the benefits and risks related to such issues cannot be generalized or objectified, and will be distributed unevenly, resulting in health and environmental inequalities. Even more generally, framing is crucial because it reflects cultural factors and historical contingencies, perceptions and mindsets, political processes, and associated values and worldviews. Framing is at the core of how we as humans relate to, and deal with, environment and human health, as scientists, policymakers, and practitioners, with models, policies, or actions.
Lora Fleming, Michael Depledge, Niall McDonough, Mathew White, Sabine Pahl, Melanie Austen, Anders Goksoyr, Helena Solo-Gabriele, and John Stegeman
The interdisciplinary study of oceans and human health is an area of increasing global importance. There is a growing body of evidence that the health of the oceans and that of humans are inextricably linked and that how we interact with and affect our oceans and seas will significantly influence our future on earth. Since the emergence of modern humans, the oceans have served as a source of culture, livelihood, expansion, trade, food, and other resources. However, the rapidly rising global population and the continuing alterations of the coastal environment are placing greater pressure on coastal seas and oceans. Negative human impacts, including pollution (chemical, microbial, material), habitat destruction (e.g., bottom trawling, dredging), and overfishing, affect not only ecosystem health, but also human health. Conversely, there is potential to promote human health and well-being through sustainable interactions with the coasts and oceans, such as the restoration and preservation of coastal and marine ecosystems.
The study of oceans and human health is inherently interdisciplinary, bringing together the natural and social sciences as well as diverse stakeholder communities (including fishers, recreational users, private enterprise, and policymakers). Reviewing history and policy with regard to oceans and human health, in addition to known and potential risks and benefits, provides insights into new areas and avenues of global cooperation, with the possibility for collaboratively addressing the local and global challenges of our interactions with the oceans, both now and in the future.
The fight against agricultural and household pests accompanies the history of humanity, and a total ban on the use of pesticides seems unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Currently, about 100,000 different chemicals, inorganic and organic, are currently in the market, grouped according to their function as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fumigants, rodenticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, etc. against specific pests, such as snails or human parasites, or their chemical structure—organochlorines, organophosphates, pyrethroids, carbamates, dithiocarbamates, organotin compounds, phthalimides, phenoxy acids, heterocyclic azole compounds, coumarins, etc. Runoff from agricultural land and rain precipitation and dry deposition from the atmosphere can extend exposure to the general environment through the transport of pesticides to streams and ground-water. Also, the prolonged bio-persistence of organochlorines generates their accumulation in the food chain, and their atmospheric drift toward remote geographical areas is mentioned as the cause of elevated fat contents in Arctic mammals. Current regulation in the developed world and the phasing out of more toxic pesticides have greatly reduced the frequency of acute intoxications, although less stringent regulations in the developing world contribute to a complex pattern of exposure circumstances worldwide. Nonetheless, evidence is growing about long-term health effects following high-level, long-lasting exposure to specific pesticides, including asthma and other allergic diseases, immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, cancer, and central and peripheral nervous system effects. Major reasons for uncertainty in interpreting epidemiological findings of pesticide effects include the complex pattern of overlapping exposure due to multiple treatments applied to different crops and their frequent changes over time to overcome pest resistance. Further research will have to address specific agrochemicals with well-characterized exposure patterns.
Amy W. Ando and Noelwah R. Netusil
Green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), a decentralized approach for managing stormwater that uses natural systems or engineered systems mimicking the natural environment, is being adopted by cities around the world to manage stormwater runoff. The primary benefits of such systems include reduced flooding and improved water quality. GSI projects, such as green roofs, urban tree planting, rain gardens and bioswales, rain barrels, and green streets may also generate cobenefits such as aesthetic improvement, reduced net CO2 emissions, reduced air pollution, and habitat improvement. GSI adoption has been fueled by the promise of environmental benefits along with evidence that GSI is a cost-effective stormwater management strategy, and methods have been developed by economists to quantify those benefits to support GSI planning and policy efforts. A body of multidisciplinary research has quantified significant net benefits from GSI, with particularly robust evidence regarding green roofs, urban trees, and green streets. While many GSI projects generate positive benefits through ecosystem service provision, those benefits can vary with details of the location and the type and scale of GSI installation. Previous work reveals several pitfalls in estimating the benefits of GSI that scientists should avoid, such as double counting values, counting transfer payments as benefits, and using values for benefits like avoided carbon emissions that are biased. Important gaps remain in current knowledge regarding the benefits of GSI, including benefit estimates for some types of GSI elements and outcomes, understanding how GSI benefits last over time, and the distribution of GSI benefits among different groups in urban areas.