Katrina Wyatt, Robin Durie, and Felicity Thomas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The burden of ill health has shifted, globally, from communicable to non-communicable disease, with poor health clustering in areas of economic deprivation. However, for the most part, public health programs remain focused on changing behaviors associated with poor health (such as smoking or physical inactivity) rather than the contexts that give rise to, and influence, the wide range of behaviors associated with poor health. This way of understanding and responding to population ill health views poor health behavior as a defining “problem” exhibited by a particular group of individuals or a community, which needs to be solved by the intervention of expert practitioners. This sort of approach determines individuals and their communities in terms of deficits, and works on the basis of perceived needs within such communities when seeking to address public health issues.
Growing recognition that many of the fundamental determinants of health cannot be attributed solely to individuals, but result instead from the complex interplay between individuals and their social, economic, and cultural environments, has led to calls for new ways of delivering policies and programs aimed at improving health and reducing health inequalities. Such approaches include the incorporation of subjective perspectives and priorities to inform the creation of “health promoting societal contexts.” Alongside this, asset-based approaches to health creation place great emphasis on valuing the skills, knowledge, connections, and potential within a community and seek to identify the protective factors within a neighborhood or organization that support health and wellbeing.
Connecting Communities (C2) is a unique asset-based program aimed at creating the conditions for health and wellness within very low-income communities. At the heart of the program is the belief that health emerges from the patterns of relations within neighborhoods, rather than being a static attribute of individuals. C2 seeks to change the nature of the relations both within communities and with service providers (such as the police, housing, education, and health professionals) to co-create responses to issues that are identified by community members themselves. While many of the issues identified concern local environmental conditions, such as vandalism or safe out-door spaces, many are also contributory determinants of ill health. Listening to people, understanding the social, cultural, and environmental context within which they are located, and supporting new partnerships based on reciprocity and mutual benefit ensures that solutions are grounded in the local context and not externally determined, in turn resulting in sustainable health creating communities.
Sumit Sharma, Liliana Nunez, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs) are widespread pollution clouds that can at times span an entire continent or an ocean basin. ABCs extend vertically from the ground upward to as high as 3 km, and they consist of both aerosols and gases. ABCs consist of anthropogenic aerosols such as sulfates, nitrates, organics, and black carbon and natural dust aerosols. Gaseous pollutants that contribute to the formation of ABCs are NOx (nitrogen oxides), SOx (sulfur oxides), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO (carbon monoxide), CH4 (methane), and O3 (ozone). The brownish color of the cloud (which is visible when looking at the horizon) is due to absorption of solar radiation at short wavelengths (green, blue, and UV) by organic and black carbon aerosols as well as by NOx. While the local nature of ABCs around polluted cities has been known since the early 1900s, the widespread transoceanic and transcontinental nature of ABCs as well as their large-scale effects on climate, hydrological cycle, and agriculture were discovered inadvertently by The Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX), an international experiment conducted in the 1990s over the Indian Ocean. A major discovery of INDOEX was that ABCs caused drastic dimming at the surface. The magnitude of the dimming was as large as 10–20% (based on a monthly average) over vast areas of land and ocean regions. The dimming was shown to be accompanied by significant atmospheric absorption of solar radiation by black and brown carbon (a form of organic carbon). Black and brown carbon, ozone and methane contribute as much as 40% to anthropogenic radiative forcing. The dimming by sulfates, nitrates, and carbonaceous (black and organic carbon) species has been shown to disrupt and weaken the monsoon circulation over southern Asia. In addition, the ozone in ABCs leads to a significant decrease in agriculture yields (by as much as 20–40%) in the polluted regions. Most significantly, the aerosols (in ABCs) near the ground lead to about 4 million premature mortalities every year. Technological and regulatory measures are available to mitigate most of the pollution resulting from ABCs. The importance of ABCs to global environmental problems led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to form the
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.
Mental and behavioral disorders account for approximately 7.4% of the global burden of disease, with depression now the world’s leading cause of disability. One in four people in the world will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their life. City planning and design holds much promise for reducing this burden of disease, and for offering solutions that are affordable, accessible and equitable. Increasingly urban green space is recognized as an important social determinant of health, with the potential to protect mental health – for example, by buffering against life stressors - as well as relieving the symptom severity of specific psychiatric disorders. Pathways linking urban green space with mental wellbeing include the ability of natural stimuli – trees, water, light patterns – to promote ‘involuntary attention’ allowing the brain to disengage and recover from cognitive fatigue. This article brings together evidence of the positive effects of urban green space on common mental health problems (i.e. stress, anxiety, depression) together with evidence of its role in the symptom relief of specific psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, attention deficit/hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. Urban green space is a potential force for building mental health: city planners, urban designers, policy makers and public health professionals need to maximize the opportunities in applying green space strategies for both health prevention and in supporting treatment of mental ill health.
Elisabet Lindgren and Thomas Elmqvist
Ecosystem services refer to benefits for human societies and well-being obtained from ecosystems. Research on health effects of ecosystem services have until recently mostly focused on beneficial effects on physical and mental health from spending time in nature or having access to urban green space. However, nearly all of the different ecosystem services may have impacts on health, either directly or indirectly. Ecosystem services can be divided into provisioning services that provide food and water; regulating services that provide, for example, clean air, moderate extreme events, and regulate the local climate; supporting services that help maintain biodiversity and infectious disease control; and cultural services.
With a rapidly growing global population, the demand for food and water will increase. Knowledge about ecosystems will provide opportunities for sustainable agriculture production in both terrestrial and marine environments. Diarrheal diseases and associated childhood deaths are strongly linked to poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. Even though improvements are being made, nearly 750 million people still lack access to reliable water sources. Ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and lakes capture, filter, and store water used for drinking, irrigation, and other human purposes. Wetlands also store and treat solid waste and wastewater, and such ecosystem services could become of increasing use for sustainable development.
Ecosystems contribute to local climate regulation and are of importance for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove and coral reefs, act as natural barriers against storm surges and flooding. Flooding is associated with increased risk of deaths, epidemic outbreaks, and negative health impacts from destroyed infrastructure. Vegetation reduces the risk of flooding, also in cities, by increasing permeability and reducing surface runoff following precipitation events.
The urban heat island effect will increase city-center temperatures during heatwaves. The elderly, people with chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and outdoor workers in cities where temperatures soar during heatwaves are in particular vulnerable to heat. Vegetation and especially trees help in different ways to reduce temperatures by shading and evapotranspiration. Air pollution increases the mortality and morbidity risks during heatwaves. Vegetation has been shown also to contribute to improved air quality by, depending on plant species, filtering out gases and airborne particulates. Greenery also has a noise-reducing effect, thereby decreasing noise-related illnesses and annoyances. Biological control uses the knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity to help control human and animal diseases.
Natural surroundings and urban parks and gardens have direct beneficial effects on people’s physical and mental health and well-being. Increased physical activities have well-known health benefits. Spending time in natural environments has also been linked to aesthetic benefits, life enrichments, social cohesion, and spiritual experience. Even living close to or with a view of nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.
The emergence of environment as a security imperative is something that could have been avoided. Early indications showed that if governments did not pay attention to critical environmental issues, these would move up the security agenda. As far back as the Club of Rome 1972 report, Limits to Growth, variables highlighted for policy makers included world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, all of which impact how we live on this planet.
The term environmental security didn’t come into general use until the 2000s. It had its first substantive framing in 1977, with the Lester Brown Worldwatch Paper 14, “Redefining Security.” Brown argued that the traditional view of national security was based on the “assumption that the principal threat to security comes from other nations.” He went on to argue that future security “may now arise less from the relationship of nation to nation and more from the relationship between man to nature.”
Of the major documents to come out of the Earth Summit in 1992, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is probably the first time governments have tried to frame environmental security. Principle 2 says: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national.”
In 1994, the UN Development Program defined Human Security into distinct categories, including:
• Economic security (assured and adequate basic incomes).
• Food security (physical and affordable access to food).
• Health security.
• Environmental security (access to safe water, clean air and non-degraded land).
By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002, water had begun to be identified as a security issue, first at the Rio+5 conference, and as a food security issue at the 1996 FAO Summit. In 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set up a High-Level Panel on “Threats, Challenges, and Change,” to help the UN prevent and remove threats to peace. It started to lay down new concepts on collective security, identifying six clusters for member states to consider. These included economic and social threats, such as poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation.
By 2007, health was being recognized as a part of the environmental security discourse, with World Health Day celebrating “International Health Security (IHS).” In particular, it looked at emerging diseases, economic stability, international crises, humanitarian emergencies, and chemical, radioactive, and biological terror threats. Environmental and climate changes have a growing impact on health. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified climate security as a key challenge for the 21st century. This was followed up in 2009 by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change—linking health and climate change.
In the run-up to Rio+20 and the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, the issue of the climate-food-water-energy nexus, or rather, inter-linkages, between these issues was highlighted. The dialogue on environmental security has moved from a fringe discussion to being central to our political discourse—this is because of the lack of implementation of previous international agreements.
Global environmental change amplifies and creates pressures that shape human migration. In the 21st century, there has been increasing focus on the complexities of migration and environmental change, including forecasts of the potential scale and pace of so-called environmental migration, identification of geographic sites of vulnerability, policy implications, and the intersections of environmental change with other drivers of human migration. Migration is increasingly viewed as an adaptive response to climatic and environmental change, particularly in terms of livelihood vulnerability and risk diversification. Yet the adaptive potential of migration will be defined in part by health outcomes for migrating populations. There has been limited examination, however, of the health consequences of migration related to environmental change.
Migration related to environmental change includes diverse types of mobility, including internal migration to urban areas, cross-border migration, forced displacement following environmental disaster, and planned relocation—migration into sites of environmental vulnerability; much-debated links between environmental change, conflict, and migration; immobile or “trapped” populations; and displacement due to climate change mitigation and decarbonization action. Although health benefits of migration may accrue, such as increased access to health services or migration away from sites of physical risk, migration—particularly irregular (undocumented) migration and forced displacement—can amplify vulnerabilities and present risks to health and well-being. For diverse migratory pathways, there is the need to anticipate, respond to, and ameliorate population health burdens among migrants.
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.
Paolo Vineis and Federica Russo
While genomics has been founded on accurate tools that lead to a limited amount of classification error, exposure assessment in epidemiology is often affected by large error. The “environment” is in fact a complex construct that encompasses chemical exposures (e.g., to carcinogens); biological agents (viruses, or the “microbiome”); and social relationships. The “exposome” concept was then put forward to stress the relatively poor development of appropriate tools for exposure assessment when applied to the study of disease etiology. Three layers of the exposome have been proposed: “general external” (including social capital, stress and psychology); “specific external” (including chemicals, viruses, radiation, etc.); and “internal” (including for example metabolism and gut microflora). In addition, there are at least three properties of the exposome: (a) it is based on a refinement of tools to measure exposures (including internal measurements in the body); (b) it involves a broad definition of “exposure” or environment, including overarching concepts at a societal level; and (c) it involves a temporal component (i.e., exposure is analyzed in a life-course perspective). The conceptual and practical challenge is how the different layers (i.e., general, specific external, and internal) connect to each other in a causally meaningful sequence. The relevance of this question pertains to the translation of science into policy—for example, if experiences in early life impact on the adult risk of disease, and on the quality of aging, how is distant action to be incorporated in biological causal models and into policy interventions? A useful causal theory to address scientific and policy question about exposure is based on the concept of information transmission. Such a theory can explain how to connect the different layers of the exposome in a life-course temporal frame and helps identify the best level for intervention (molecular, individual, or population level). In this context epigenetics plays a key role, partly because it explains the long-distance persistence of epigenetic changes via the concept of “epigenetic memory.”
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.