Human Health and the Natural Environment*
The natural environment is the thin layer of life and life supports, called the biosphere, that contains the earth’s air, soil, water, and living organisms. The connection between protecting the natural environment and safeguarding human health has been recognized for some time. In recent decades the focus of research and legislation has been identifying and regulating environmental toxics to reduce harmful human exposures. The effect of various environmental exposures, such as toxic chemicals, air pollution, and biological agents on the human body, is commonly perceived as the central problem in environmental health. However, maintaining a healthy environment extends beyond controlling these hazards.
The effect of various environmental exposures, such as toxic chemicals, air pollution, and biological agents on the human body, is commonly perceived as the central problem in environmental health. However, maintaining a healthy environment extends beyond controlling these hazards.
Preserving the variety of life on earth is also essential to human health. The natural world continually offers compounds that are useful to the pharmacopoeia. Animal and plant products are vital for research and diagnostic tools, and they can be used as indicators of pollution-related disease. Research suggests that biodiversity may hold a key to the prevention and treatment of many diseases (Lovejoy, 2001).
An even more direct connection between the environment and health is the potential enhancement of our physical, mental, and social well-being through our daily exposure to the natural environment. People’s nearly universal prefer-
ence for contact with the natural world—plants, animals, natural landscapes, the sea, and the wilderness—suggests that we as a species may find tranquility in certain natural environments and may derive health benefits from them (Frumkin, 2001). Recent research has confirmed this link. For example, hospitalized post-surgical patients (Ulrich, 1984), employees (Kaplan, 1992), and prisoners (Moore, 1981) have been shown to gain health benefits from exposure to views of nature. Health benefits have also been reported from viewing plants in gardens, interacting with animals (including pets), and participating in wilderness experiences (Frumkin, 2001). This evidence of health benefits from contact with the natural world suggests a broader paradigm of environmental health that includes health-giving environmental exposures (Frumkin, 2001).
A panel of speakers and respondents discussed strategies for ensuring human health through the maintenance of a healthy natural environment. John Sibley, the Georgia Conservancy, noted that in environmental circles the three-legged stool is often used as a metaphor for sustainability. The three “legs” represent the natural world (the environment), the physically built world (the economy), and the social world (equity). Sustainability requires that all three areas be taken into account. Representatives from the three areas must engage in conversation and form partnerships with each other. Sibley noted that the metaphor fails to reflect one essential part of sustainability—the connection between the environment and health. Representatives of the natural environment, the built environment, and the social environment must also work with, and form partnerships with, representatives from the health services community. Sibley invited participants to explore these connections and to consider what new metaphor may be needed to go forward.
VALUING THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Many environmental problems stem from our failure to value the natural environment as we should, according to Eugene Odum, University of Georgia, Institute of Ecology. Current market economics deal largely with human-made goods and services and very little with nature’s goods and services (Odum, 1998). The market forces that regulate human-made goods and services in our free market economy are not applied to nature’s goods and services because these resources are considered “economic externalities” and are perceived as free. For example, we view clean air and clean waterways as free; even domestic water is so cheap that market forces rarely influence demand. By taking this perspective, however, we fail to appreciate the true costs of these resources. In the past, these “externalities” (for example,
Only when a natural resource is scarce, as is water in the southwestern United States, is it regarded as having significant value.
air, water, and the cost of waste treatment) have held little economic concern because the environment seemed large enough to absorb the costs (Odum, 1998). As the human population continues to burgeon and our demands on the environment skyrocket, this assumption will no longer be valid, concluded Odum.
It is important that we understand the actual costs of the goods and services that nature provides. For example, household water bills cover only the expense of pumping, filtering, and delivering water. They do not pay for nature’s processing of that water. About a third of the solar energy that reaches our planet is used to conduct the water cycle. The sun evaporates water from the seas, desalinates it in the process, and delivers it via rain clouds to where people need it. If we had to duplicate these services by replacing them with human-made systems, the expense would be extraordinary. Only when a natural resource is scarce, as is water in the southwestern United States, is it regarded as having significant value.
The same analysis extends beyond water and air to resources that grow on the land and lie within the earth. Although we pay for goods that grow (e.g., food and lumber), we do not pay for nature’s building up and maintaining the fertility of the soil or the solar energy that makes growth possible. Similarly, we pay for drilling, mining, processing, and transporting the earth’s chemical and mineral resources, but not for the effort that nature expended to create them.
As long as natural resources are not regulated by market forces, it is likely that they will not be properly valued. We must find a better way to merge economics and ecology. Is it time to consider the application of market principles as an alternative to environmental regulations? Can we protect the environment in this way? We are used to regulations and have often used them to good effect, but people dislike being regulated, and insufficient attention is paid to 90 percent of existing regulations.
Odum suggested that perhaps market incentives for promoting environmental health and reducing pollution should be considered. Tax relief and other incentives could be used effectively to reward industry for being guardians of the environment. For example, it is expensive for a power company to be a good steward because antipollution equipment is costly to install and operate. If the company passes the cost on to its customers, the price of the power will not be competitive with that offered by the company’s less noble competitors. One alternative is to give the company tax relief until the equipment has been paid off. Once all power plants have antipollution equipment, the environment and our health will benefit, and market forces can again take effect.
Extending market forces to environmental resources poses the potential risk of making basic human needs unaffordable for some and thereby increasing social inequity. Although certain changes may raise the price of the basic necessities of life such as water and power, these costs need not be passed on to the poor. The tax system is currently a vehicle for addressing the problems of social inequity, and it could be extended to environmental issues.
The potential benefits of extending market forces to environmental resources are immense. As an example, the state of Georgia in the 1970s assessed the economic value of its coastal marshes at approximately $50,000 an acre, based on the “work” that marshes do to ensure environmental health. As a result, marshes are now considered more valuable left in their natural state than filled in and developed. Odum suggested that a spirited debate about the costs and benefits of extending market principles to environmental health is warranted.
PROTECTING THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT: LESSONS FROM NATURE
The question of how to eliminate pollution has plagued humans for the last century. Industrial by-products are often difficult to manage in large quantities, and solutions for eliminating waste have often been prohibitively expensive to implement. As a result, the present “solution” is no solution at all: continually dumping waste until there is no place left to put it, except in “someone else’s” backyard. In contrast to industrial systems, natural ecosystems are very efficient. Waste is virtually eliminated because it is reused in some productive manner. Source reduction, evident in natural ecosystems, is the ultimate solution to pollution.
Mimicking the workings of natural ecosystems in our industrial complexes would cause raw materials to be used more effectively and waste to be reduced or eliminated. As companies invent ways to mimic nature’s efficiency, they benefit from not having to dispose of waste, and they may be able to sell or license the technology for additional profits. When such technology is applied correctly, profits improve, stated Robert Kerr, Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
The current regulatory process generally takes a single-medium view and considers various aspects of pollution and waste control in isolation. Companies may have several environmental permits—an air permit, a wastewater quality discharge permit, and a solid waste permit—but in many cases they have no relationship to each other. Sometimes, for example, companies take the pollutants out of the air and create solid waste, which then must be disposed in a landfill.
A systematic, holistic view is needed to examine the interrelationships in the process of pollution and waste control and to apply them to reduce business and industry’s environmental footprint, concluded Kerr. In some cases, several facilities could work together in a cooperative effort. The result would be to transform industrial ecosystems from
A systematic, holistic view is needed to examine the interrelationships in the process of pollution and waste control and to apply them to reduce business and industry’s environmental footprint.
linear processes that end with waste disposal to a cyclical process more akin to the process that natural ecosystems use to recycle waste. Not only would the impact on the environment be reduced throughout the life cycle of the product in a cost-effective manner, but the environmental ethic would be incorporated into the company’s core business philosophy. Such a solution could also potentially transform government regulatory agencies into partners prepared to assist industry in reducing the environmental impact of waste in a cost-effective manner.
This approach has been taken by the Blue Circle Cement Company in Atlanta, which worked with the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to identify potentially useful waste by-products from other industrial companies in the region. These waste by-products are now used by Blue Circle as raw material or as fuel for making cement. Also, Blue Circle now has the capacity to burn a million used tires as fuel each year, which benefits the environment by reducing air emissions. The company is also looking into using industrial carpet scraps as an additional fuel source—waste that was previously destined for landfills. This effort is only one part of a regional carpet-recycling system being developed by the Department of Natural Resources in concert with Georgia Institute of Technology and the Carpet and Rug Institute. Synergistic methods of waste reduction are also being identified among other industries and organizations.
Working with Georgia Institute of Technology, the Department of Natural Resources has established 18 regional environmental networks throughout the state. The networks hold quarterly meetings in which representatives of various organizations learn from each other and develop relationships so that they can share their waste by-products as raw materials, said Kerr. This effort has extended beyond the manufacturing community to include state prisons, military bases, colleges, and state parks.
Lessons learned from examining the dynamics of natural and industrial ecosystems will better equip environmental agencies to work with industries, businesses, and institutions to reduce their impact on the environment and simultaneously increase profits. The ultimate result will be to minimize public health risks through cost-effective preventive solutions to current waste-generation practices, concluded Kerr.
ENSURING THE HEALTH OF THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT: POTENTIAL STRATEGIES
A prevailing theme among conservationists has been that preserving nature and protecting natural areas require keeping them pristine and completely free of the imprints of humans and human systems. This view is in many ways no longer practical because most ecosystems today are impacted in some way by human behavior, stated Matthew Kales, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Virtually every stream in the world is affected by atmospheric deposition. The air
Box 4–1 Ways to Protect the Natural Environment
quality in some of our national parks has been found to be no better than in some of our cities. Essentially, no place exists where we cannot feel, in some measurable way, the footprint of humans. All solutions to environmental health problems must be grounded in this reality. Any proposed solution to problems in the natural environment that discounts the impact of the social and the built environments will be inadequate. To protect the natural environment, solutions are needed that consider the entire environment in a holistic way (Box 4–1).
A first step is to monitor the health of our local environment actively and continuously, said many participants. A set of indices for the health of the environment (e.g., rate of biomass production and respiration, microorganism activity, rate of erosion, levels of toxins) would create a profile of a healthy environment and serve as important benchmarks against which to compare future changes in the environment, noted Odum.
A second step is to create outreach programs for educating individuals about environmental health issues such as water quality. An example of such a program is the bacteria alert network for the Chattahoochee River conducted by Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in concert with the Georgia Conservancy and several federal and state agencies, reported Kales. The Chattahoochee River is a prime resource for the area, supporting navigation and hydropower, providing drinking water, assimilating wastewater, and providing a rich environment for many recreational activities—fishing, boating, swimming, paddling, and walking. Readings of Escherichia coli and other bacteria harmful to human health have recently been found to be extremely high. Representatives from Riverkeeper and the National Park Service are taking water samples and publicizing the condition of the river to let the public know whether the area is safe for recreation. A related program is one that offers outreach to “subsistence anglers,” people who fish for food, to inform them when bacterial counts indicate that the fish are not safe to eat. In this instance, merely publishing passing guidelines is inadequate. Materials must be available in forms that will reach all affected individuals, perhaps in pictorial form or in languages other than English.
A third step is to continue to address issues related to pollution. Extensive networks and partnerships among industries and between government and industry must be created to reduce waste by-products and minimize the health effects of pollution. Fourth, our decisions about the environment need to be based on sound science, stated many participants. Fifth, approaches to environmental health, including generating environmental indices, have to take into account the particular circumstances of each locality, suggested Samuel Wilson, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. Strategies that are the most effective may be different in the Southeast than in other regions, said Wilson. Many participants agreed that the local community must work as a unit to define local environmental problems, to generate creative solutions, and to advocate the adoption of those solutions.