Rapid environmental change threatens human health
Nov 5, 2009 - 5:56:48 PM

Changes to the earth's land cover, climate and ecosystems are endangering the health of hundreds of millions, possibly over a billion, of people worldwide and now represent the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century, says international green think tank Worldwatch Institute.

The scale of these global changes is rapidly undermining human life-support systems and threatening the core foundations of healthy communities around the globe.

Access to adequate food, clean air, safe drinking water, and secure homes are all affected, a Worldwatch spokesperson said here Thursday while releasing a new report, Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health.

Published by Worldwatch and the United Nations Foundation, the report notes that, as a result of rapid changes to the climate and in land use, we are already seeing alterations in the distribution of malaria, schistosomiasis, and other infectious diseases in many regions.

It concludes that poor populations, mainly in developing countries, are the most vulnerable to these environmental changes, even though they are the least responsible for contributing to these.

'It is increasingly apparent that the breadth and depth of the changes we are wreaking on the environment are imperiling not only many of the other species with which we share the ecological stage, but the health and wellbeing of our own species as well,' writes the report's author Samuel S. Myers of Harvard Medical School and Research Associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The report outlines a series of public health threats -- food and water inscarcity, altered distribution of infectious diseases, increased air pollution, natural disasters, and population displacement -- that collectively threaten large segments of the human population.

But most of the death and disability from these threats is fundamentally preventable, Myers writes, if the political will can be mobilised to take strong, concerted action.

The report outlines the need for national-level risk assessments to identify the greatest threats in different regions, as well as unprecedented technical and financial assistance from the international community to help developing countries adapt to the health impacts of accelerating environmental change.

Ultimately, the report argues, we will need to find new ways to generate economic growth that do not cause serious ecological deterioration, or the progress that has been made toward global health, nutrition, and poverty alleviation will be undone.

'At present, all of the major types of human caused environmental change -- climate change, changes in land use and cover, and ecosystem service degradation -- are accelerating,' Myers says.

'To reduce the avoidable human suffering that will result, we must redouble our efforts to slow the pace of environmental change, reduce the rate of human population growth, and reduce the vulnerabilities of those in harm's way.'

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