Greener can be Healthier

Climate change is the theme for National Public Health Week (NPHW) this week. It was the theme of World Health Day this year as well – a reflection of the increased attention health is getting in relation to climate change. Climate change is probably the biggest current threat to the public’s health so its time that health professionals acted. The American Public Health Association (APHA) has come up with ways to become greener and healthier at the same time.

The most obvious individual action that can improve health while also reducing carbon emissions and improving the environment is, for me, getting out of the car. Keith Laughlin the President of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy tackles this on the APHA’s National Public Health Week blog. He mentions the direct health benefits of exercise. It helps you control weight and improves lung function and heart function, protecting against obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancers. A briefing by L. Miles in Nutrition Bulletin is a good review of the subject that I found on Global Health.

Keith Laughlin does not mention the indirect benefit of reduced car use in cities – less air pollution. This pollution can have a significant effect on respiratory health. An example from Global Health: Chen LinPing and colleagues saw an increase of 4% in respiratory emergency hospital admissions in Brisbane, Australia when PM10 particles in the air from traffic rose by 10 micro g/m3 (his paper).

Cathryn Tonne et al’s study in Occupational and Environmental Medicine has shown positive (although small) benefits in terms of reduced mortality in London when air pollution was reduced, courtesy of the congestion charge. Introduction of the charge has reduced traffic in central London with more people using public or other transport. Cathryn Tonne et al., show that the charge has reduced nitrogen dioxide levels (a greenhouse gas) and PM10 diesel particle levels in areas in the charging zone. The decrease, she estimates, has saved 183 years of life per 100,000 of the population in this area and over London as whole she estimates 1,888 years of life gained.

A second easy way to be greener and healthier is to consider diet. Roni Neff from Johns Hopkins University points out on the NPHWblog that about one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from actions related to food production, specifically agriculture and land use. Changes can be made here too that benefit the climate and health – eating less meat and, by implication, more vegetables. Meat requires more energy input to produce. She mentions a Lancet article in October that suggests we should not be eating more than 90 g of meat per day, and less from ruminants to keep greenhouse gas emissions down. Looking in Global Health I find that the health benefit of eating less could be reduced cancer risk. For example, a study by Cross et al. in PLOS Medicine found elevated risks (ranging from 20% to 60%) for esophageal, colorectal, liver, and lung cancer, in individuals with the highest red meat intake compared to those eating least. However not all studies have had such clear effects.

Roni Neff also says change to organic food. I think the health benefits to the consumers of organic food in terms of nutrition and food contamination are not yet clearly proven – see Dave’s blog last year. But, you may well benefit someone else’s health by eating organic – think of people working with pesticides in developing countries where health and safety laws are more lax.

WHO has put together a handy summary of the impact of climate change on health: Protecting health from climate change. Climate change is definitely a case where prevention will be better than cure.

If you want to follow the research on effects of man on the environment then check out Environmental Impact CABIs new resource launching soon….

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