The World Health Organization has found that the yearly global death toll of environmental degradation amounts to thirteen million, which is 24% of the global disease burden and 23% of all premature deaths (“Environmental health,” 2018). The effects range from cancer from air pollution to mental health issues from constant noise in densely populated, rapidly developing urban areas. As reported by the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development (OECD) (2020), the average life expectancy and healthcare expenditures as a percentage of GDP have increased across the board. However, in the same time period, the adverse impact of environmental degradation has only exacerbated and remained poorly manageable and largely unaddressed. This paper provides recent scientific evidence for the profound and insidious effects that environmental hazards have on human health.
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What humans breathe impacts their health and longevity: as shown by recent statistics, air pollution claims up to 4.2 million deaths each year. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study found that exposure to ambient fine particulate matter was the seventh leading cause of global mortality and the fifth most significant contributor in East Asia (West et al., 2016). What adds an extra level of complexity to the issue is the changing geospatial nature of air pollution. Broadly, key air pollutants are decreasing in North America and Europe but on the rise in China, India, and other less industrialized countries that are less prepared for the management of this environmental threat (West et al., 2016). According to the World Health Organization (2019), the key noncommunicable diseases that occur in areas with serious air pollution are ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The leading cause for all these conditions, safe for lung cancer, is household air pollution, closely followed by ambient air pollution. Conversely, lung cancer is more attributable to poor work safety and occupational risks.
Issues such as air, water, and soil pollution make a part of the disturbing global trend that is climate change. It is global warming that may have by far the most profound, grave, and diverse effects on human health. Extreme heat is found to be a trigger for chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, especially in elderly people, whose share in the world population is growing due to the increased life expectancy. The World Health Organization (2018) reports as many as 70,000 deaths in Europe alone caused by the heatwave in summer 2003. Furthermore, climatic conditions change patterns of infection, lengthen the transmission season, and widen the affected areas. For example, as shown by Fernando (2015), the burden of malaria, one of the deadliest diseases in Africa and Asia, is sensitive to climate change. Higher temperatures, increased humidity, and heavy rainfalls result in a proliferation of malaria-carrying mosquitos who reach the areas that were considered low-risk before.
One of the detrimental effects of climate change is the exaggeration of existing natural phenomena that were difficult to manage to begin with. In the high-emission scenario in which the world does not address the greenhouse effect, East Asian countries will suffer extreme heatwaves, droughts, and heavy rainfall. In Thailand alone, around 2.5 million people are at risk of floods at any given moment (World Health Organization, 2015). Between July 2011 and January 2012, Thailand had seen the worst flooding of the century. It claimed 815 lives and harmed 13.6 people in 65 provinces (Promchote et al., 2016). However, deaths, physical injuries, and property drowning are not the only health and socioeconomic threats. Extreme weather events triggered by climate change impact food production and access to drinking water. They have the potential of disrupting entire ecosystems and facilitating the spread of infectious diseases.
It is worth noting that environmental factors affect people not only physically but also psychologically. The American Psychiatric Association (2019) states that the mental health consequences of climate change events range from mild stress to substance abuse, anxiety, and depression. Sometimes climate change results in job loss, dislocation, and a lack of support networks and community resources. Such events are also emotionally straining and may push individuals to the brink of a mental disorder (The American Psychiatric Association, 2019). It is not uncommon for depressed or anxious people to ignore their physical health, which in turn leads to even more morbidity and adds to the national and global burden of disease.
Human health is impacted by a variety of factors, including lifestyle choices, diet, sanitation, socioeconomic status, education, and accessibility and affordability of healthcare. In recent years, environmental risk factors have become a public health concern as it is now apparent that environmental degradation poses a threat to human physical and psychological health. Issues such as air pollution lead to an increased burden of serious, chronic diseases. Environmental threats are part of a bigger picture and are likely to be the consequences of climate change. Global warming exacerbates natural events, changes the patterns of infectious diseases, and triggers respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
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