Positionality statement: My name is Rachel Howlett and my pronouns are she/her. I am from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which is the traditional land of the Mi’kmaq known as Mi’kmaki in the region of Sipekni’katik. I am speaking from a position of privilege as a white settler and I want to acknowledge that intersectionality is essential in every topic in order to fully address the injustices of the world we live in. This post was written to educate others on the intersection of human health and the environment.
Planetary health is the concept that human health and the health of the environment are inextricably linked (1). Research has demonstrated that human behaviour has vastly changed our climate, which in turn has altered food supply, frequency of severe storms, water supply, human settlements and the pattern of diseases (2). As humans, our health is dependent on the natural systems in which we exist and those systems are being degraded at an unprecedented pace (3). The extent of the impact on human health is not entirely known, however the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that exposures to polluted soil, water, and air contributed to an estimated 8.9 million deaths worldwide in 2012 (4).
In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health defined planetary health as “the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends (5).” In other words, in addition to public health and environmental considerations, planetary health also considers the political, economic and social systems that influence them (1). It is considered a more holistic approach than either public health, which focuses on health protection and health promotion within closed health systems or global health, which aims to improve the health of populations globally (4). One of the key consequences that planetary health has identified in our society is our failure to account for future health with our destruction of the environment done in the name of economic progress (5).
First, it is important to note how much of our environment is changing due to climate change and other human provoked change. Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing increased melting of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic, which in turn raise the mean sea level (5). In combination with increasing temperatures, we will be seeing more extreme weather events which will directly affect ecosystems composed of plants and animals (5). The ocean is becoming increasingly acidic due to increased absorption of atmospheric carbon which will negatively impact all marine life (5). Studies have concluded that climate change will reduce renewable freshwater sources in dry areas by increasing drought periods (6). Tropical deforestation done by humans is leading to losses in native species and urbanization is diminishing the area available for natural soil degradation processes (5). Toxic chemicals used in medicine, agriculture and the production of consumer goods are introduced into the environment as waste which can reduce ecosystem function (5).
The below figure shows some of the connections between environmental changes and human health (5) . To name a few, floods caused by extreme weather are known to increase the risk of vector-borne and water-related illnesses (2). Droughts that are also seen in extreme weather can threaten food production and diminish the amount of micronutrients in crops (2). Air pollution caused by carbon emission is directly linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and other pollutants can be linked to cognitive disorders in children and increased heart disease, stroke and cancer in adults (4). The United Nations Development Programme has acknowledged that more than 80% of communicable and non-communicable diseases are influenced by environmental hazards such as air, water and land degradation (7).
Human pressure on the environment can also cause severe mental health effects, known as solastalgia which refers to “distress associated with environmental change” (5). Research from both Alaska and Australia has shown increases in depression and anxiety following villages affected by climate-related changes and a decade-long drought respectively (5). There is still a need for more studies in this area, but it is thought that concerns about work and finances are combined with a sense of powerlessness surrounding the consequences of climate related changes (5). Following the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, a report concluded that general anxiety disorders were significantly elevated in the population (8). The same study highlighted the need for policy approaches to better address the impacts of post-disaster anxiety (8).
One of the most widely used markers of human progress in the gross domestic product (GDP) (5). The GDP fails to recognize any environmental harms that might threaten human health or the disproportionate effect of these climate-related changes on people of lower socio-economic status (5). In planetary health, the measure for success is through the health of all people, recognizing that unjust societies currently exist (4). This concept recognizes the need for social transformation to eliminate differences in health outcomes that are present according to gender, education, wealth and location (4). To do so, further advances in medicine and health will have to incorporate the social and environmental context of the world we live in (4). There also needs to be urgency and prioritization by the international community to mitigate the current levels of environmental pollution (4).
Ultimately, planetary health is rooted in the fact that our current state of overconsumption as a race is unsustainable. The harms we inflict on the planet, whether it be greenhouse gases, pollution or deforestation, are directly detrimental to our health (4). Advances in medicine and wellbeing have been incredible in the past century but the health of the planet needs to be at the forefront of our public health approach moving forward (4). Planetary health requires intersectionality in our approach to human health as we must consider the climate emergency, urbanisation, gender equity, racism and the wealth gap fundamental to our goal of human prosperity.
(1) Rockefeller Foundation. Planetary Health 101 Information and Resources - [Internet]. Rockefellerfoundation.org. 2017 [cited 20 September 2020]. Available from: https://www. rockefellerfoundation.org/report/planetary-health-101-information-resources/
(2) United Nations Climate Change. Highlighting the unique link between climate change and health - [Internet]. https://newsroom.unfccc.int/. 2016 [cited 20 September 2020]. Available from: https://newsroom.unfccc.int/news/human-health-needs-a-healthy-planet
(3) Horton R, Lo S. Planetary health: a new science for exceptional action. The Lancet Commissions. 2015; 386(10007): 1944.
(4) Horton R, Beaglehole R, Bonita R, Raeburn J, Mckee M, Wall S. From public to planetary health: a manifesto. The Lancet. 2014; 383(9920): 847.
(5) Whitmee S, Haines A, Beyrer C, Boltz F, Capon A, Dias B. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet Commissions. 2015; 386(10007): 1973-2028.
(6) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability - [Internet]. Ipcc.ch. 2014 [cited 20 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/
(7) United Nations Development Programme. Planetary Health - [Internet]. Undp.org. 2020. [cited 20 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en
(8) Agyapong V, Hrabok M, et al. Prevalence Rates and Predictors of Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms in Residents of Fort McMurray Six Months After a Wildfire. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018; 9: 345.