The world has made progress in eradicating diseases yet, at the same time, we are creating new ways to harm ourselves.

By changing our natural world, using harmful substances, depleting life-giving water, and generating mountains of foul waste, we expose ourselves to health risks which can kill or sicken us.

An unhealthy environment has caused almost a quarter of all deaths, prompting the need to place environmental issues at the centre of efforts to improve human health – this was a key message at the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) last week.

The dangers posed by air and water pollution, harmful chemicals, microplastics in oceans, wastes, zoonotic diseases and climate change to human health were revealed in a series of reports released at the meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The UN says in 2012, 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment and 65% of it was from non-communicable diseases, mostly due to air pollution.

A volunteer holds sand mixed with plastic pellets during a beach clean-up in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

A volunteer holds sand mixed with plastic pellets during a beach clean-up in Hong Kong.

Its report Healthy Environment, Healthy People highlights the importance of a robust environment to achieving sustainable development goals.

Most of the environmental health risks are consequences of the way the world has developed, which has led to ecosystem disruption, climate change, inequality, unplanned urbanisation, as well as unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

Deaths attributable to the environment were highest in South-East Asia at 28% followed by 27% in the Western Pacific. In Europe, it is 15%.

“By depleting the ecological infrastructure of our planet and increasing our pollution footprint, we incur an ever-growing cost in terms of human health and well-being. From air pollution and chemical exposure to the mining of our natural resource base, we have compromised our life support systems,” says United Nations Enviroment Programme (UNEP) executive director Achim Steiner.

Closely connected

UNEP chief scientist Jacqueline McGlade stresses that environmental issues cannot be isolated from health concerns. “This is the time that ministers on the environment need to grapple and engage with the health agenda. Over the last century, we’ve seen a shift from communicable, contagious diseases to non-communicable diseases. We see diseases that originate from animals. These are the diseases of the century. And the numbers infringe on the way we live and where we live. If we tackle environment issues, we also tackle health issues,” she says at a press briefing.

Air pollution kills seven million people each year; over half are from pollution from cooking stoves which burn wood. “Air pollution is still our number one killer. People are living in conditions where they’re inhaling, every day, vast quantities of smoke just because of the fuel used for cooking,” says McGlade.

Having no clean water and sanitation lead to 842,000 deaths from diarrhoeal diseases every year. It is the third leading cause of deaths of children younger than five.

McGlade says lead and mercury exposures remain a threat. Only 70 of 196 countries worldwide have established limits on lead in paint. In the United States, lead in paint is capped at 90 parts per million but in some developing countries, it can be as high as 10,000ppm. Lead is also coming from car batteries and peeling paint in old homes. Some 654,000 died from exposure to lead in 2010, while 107,000 people die annually from exposure to asbestos, another harmful material.

Climate toll

Weather-related disasters have killed over 600,000 lives over the past 20 years.

The World Health Organisaton indicates that 250,000 additional deaths could occur each year between 2030 and 2050, mostly from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, as a result of climate change.

Extremes in climate also affect food production. “The natural environment is responding to these climatic extremes and it’s now affecting the very things we eat,” Says McGlade.

She says three-quarters of crops are affected by droughts and floods. Crops such as maize and cassava are responding to drought by accumulating chemical compounds that are toxic to animals and humans.

Plastic ocean

The scientific community is racing to understand the impact that the alarming amount of microplastics in our oceans is having on various organisms, as well as the risk they pose to human health through the consumption of contaminated food. These tiny plastic particles – between the size of an ant and virus – are found in water systems throughout the world and in the stomachs of everything from zooplankton to whales.

Animal diseases

Zoonotic diseases (diseases passed from animals to human) are on the rise. Recent years see the emergence of Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Rift Valley fever and Zika virus diseases. About 60% of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, as are 7% of all emerging infectious diseases.

It is linked to the health of ecosystems: human activities that encroach on natural habitats enable pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spread more easily to livestock and humans. The illegal trade in live wild animals is another source of such diseases.

“Never before have so many animals been kept by so many people – and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass through the biophysical environment and wild animals to livestock and people as zoonotic diseases or zoonoses,” the report states.

The lack of clean water and sanitation lead to 842,000 deaths from diarrhoeal diseases every year. Photo: Reuters

The lack of clean water and sanitation lead to 842,000 deaths from diarrhoeal diseases every year.

What next?

To prevent health risks posed by poor environmental health, the UN recommends four approaches. We first have to detoxify – stop the use of harmful substances. Next is decarbonise – reduce the use of carbon fuels by switching to renewables. Over their life-cycle, the environmental impact of solar, wind and hydropower are three to 10 times lower than fossil-fuel power plants.

We also have to decouple resource use, that is, depend less on natural resources for economic activities. And lastly, we need to conserve nature.

There are health and economic benefits to these actions. For instance, the successful phase-out of nearly 100 ozone-depleting substances has plugged the hole in the ozone layer, saving many from skin cancer and eye cataracts. Eliminating lead in petrol prevents one million premature deaths each year.

Implementing measures to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane can reduce global warming by 0.5°C by the middle of the century, and save 2.4 million lives a year from reduced air pollution by 2030.

In all of this, the financial sector has a critical role to play. It can invest in new low-carbon, resource-efficient and environmentally sound assets. It can also help shift capital away from traditional assets that damage the environment.

“By grounding development and progress in environmental health, we safeguard our own well-being. At UNEA-2, the world is focusing on pathways to ensure that the environment sustains human health rather than threatening it,” says Steiner.

People are living in conditions where they are inhaling, every day, vast quantities of smoke just because of the fuel used for cooking. Photo: Reuters

People are living in conditions where they are inhaling, every day, vast quantities of smoke just because of the fuel used for cooking.

Green moves

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Some countries are shifting to low-carbon, resource-efficient economies to reach that elusive goal of sustainable development.

Germany’s application of a “circular economy” to manage waste has raised recycling rates, created green jobs and increased resource efficiency. In a circular economy, products, components and resources are designed to be maintained, reused, remanufactured and recycled to minimise waste, as opposed to the conventional linear economic models of “take, make, dispose”.

In many parts of the country, pay-as-you-throw recycling schemes make it cost-effective for households to discard less stuff, according to the UNEP report Multiple Pathways to Sustainable Development: Further Evidence of Sustainability in Practice.

Waste volumes among German households remain unchanged for many years, while recycling rate grew from 50% in 2000 to 64% in 2013. Despite the advances, there is still much to do to achieve a true circular economy – industries continue to use virgin materials, with raw materials derived from waste forming only 14%.

The report also looks at Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), which the country uses instead of GDP to measure its development. GNH aims for an economy that serves the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment instead of focusing purely on economic development.

In the past 20 years, the country has doubled life expectancy and enrolled almost all children in primary education. In the past decade, it has almost halved maternal mortality rate and poverty.

Costa Rica, one of the first countries in the world to initiate a nationwide Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programme, has improved management of one million hectares of forests. In PES, landowners and farmers are paid to manage land so that it continues to provide ecological services. The government has signed 15,000 contracts with landowners and distributed over US$300mil to reverse deforestation and reduce poverty.

Botswana’s Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) calculates the stocks and flows of natural resources and measure their contribution to the country’s economy. It helps the government to better determine the true contribution of natural resources, optimise their use, and assess how they can be used to diversify the economy and reduce poverty. Such accounts give important data to support sustainable development.

Almost one quarter of China will be covered in forest by 2020 if the country succeeds in its mission towards building an “eco-civilisation” – a resource-saving, environmentally-friendly society that integrates ecological development with economic, social, cultural and political development. UNEP’s report Green is Gold states that China has already made notable achievements. It had built 10.5 billion m2 of energy-saving buildings in urban areas – roughly 38% the total area of urban residential buildings – by 2014.