Linking Global Health with the Globe: Environmental Health

Often global health advocacy today is targeted towards very important, but at the same time very specific causes: polio vaccines, infectious diseases, or MDRTB to name a few. But global health is also, importantly, about the bigger picture- it is about the world around us.  Environmental factors like pollution, climate change, and resource overuse have serious implications for human health.  Pollution can lead to asthma or cancer, climate change to droughts and famines, and resource overuse to deprivation and poor nutrition.  This big picture approach is incredibly important to protecting human life – in fact, the WHO estimates that as many as 13 million deaths a year could be prevented by making our environments healthier.

Taking steps to protect the environment is, therefore, not just a fight for cleaner air, or water, but a necessary part of the fight for health equity worldwide.  Consider these facts:

  • Communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental perils like pollution from local power plants or waste treatment sites. 
  • In 2011, 768 million people remained without access to clean water.
  • Also in 2011, 2.5 billion people in developing countries lacked access to improved sanitation facilities.
  • In children under the age of five, 1/3 of the disease burden is caused by environmental factors such as unsafe water and air pollution.
  • During the past 100 years, population growth has mirrored the growth of GHGs that cause climate change.  If current trends do not change, the global population will hit 9.2 billion in 2050.

Interventions such as promoting safe household water storage, better hygiene measures, increasing access to family planning and reproductive health, and the use of cleaner and safer fuels have direct implications for reducing the disease burden around the world.  

Many of our member organizations work on these important issues.  Population Action International’s Climate Change Initiative is one such program that explores relationships between population, gender, and climate change.  It connects issues of family planning and reproductive health with greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource use.  The Public Health Initiative also works extensively in the area of environmental health.   See our member list to explore organizations that are working at the forefront of environmental health issues and learn more about the connections between our world and our health.

This post was written by Olivia Noble, Global Health Council.