Sick (Because) of Environmental Destruction? More Than You Realize

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, if old adages are to be believed. That mindset is yet another reason to pay more attention to out-of-control development perpetuated in the name of progress.

Not only are people sick of environmentally destruction, they are sick because of environmental destruction, writes Canadian scientist and author Dr. David Suzuki, in his latest Science Matters blog.

For example, new research is showing a direct link between the rise of illness like malaria or Lyme’s disease and human-caused deforestation or overdevelopment. Warming ocean waters, meanwhile, are stimulating the growth of toxic bacteria shellfish.

One solution would be to demand that human health factors be considered as a part of every sustainable development plan, writes Suzuki. His analysis of the strong links between human health and environmental destruction appears in the article below, which originally appeared on and was reprinted with permission from the David Suzuki Foundation. 


By Dr. David Suzuki, Science Matters (with contributions from Ian Hanington)

Preventing illness is the best way to get health-care costs
down. So why aren’t governments doing more to protect the environment?

long known that environmental factors contribute to disease, especially contamination
of air, water, and soil. Scientists are now learning the connection is stronger
than we realized.

New research shows that 60% emerging infectious
diseases affecting humans — those that rapidly increase in incidence or
geographic range — start with animals, two-thirds from wild animals. Lyme
disease, West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, AIDS … these are just a few of the
hundreds of epidemics that have spread from animals to people. A study by the International
Livestock Research Institute concludes that more than 2 million people a year
are killed by diseases that originated with wild and domestic animals. Many
more become ill.

According to an article in the New York Times, “emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last
half-century.” The increase is mainly due to human encroachment into and
destruction of wildlife habitat. For example, one study concluded that a 4% increase in Amazon deforestation led to a 50% increase in
malaria because mosquitoes, which transmit the disease, thrive in the cleared

Another example from the article shows how interconnected
life is. Development in North America has destroyed or fragmented forests and
chased many predators away. This has led to a huge increase in white-footed mice,
which carry Lyme bacteria. The mice are not good at removing ticks and their
larvae and so the ticks pick up bacteria from the mice and spread it to other
mammals, including humans. Because the number of Lyme-infected ticks has
multiplied, more are transferring the disease to humans.

“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity —
we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields – we tend
to get rid of species that serve a protective role,” Lyme disease
researcher Richard Ostfeld told the New
York Times
, adding that our actions tend to favour species that act as
disease carriers.

Global warming is adding to the problem. A study in the
journal Nature, “Impact of regional
climate change on human health”, notes that heart attacks and respiratory
illness due to heat waves, altered transmission of infectious diseases, and malnutrition
from crop failures can all be linked to a warming planet. And economic and
political upheaval brought on by climate change can damage public health
infrastructure, making it difficult for people to cope with the inevitable rise
in sickness, according to a study in the Archives
of Medical Research
, "Global Warming and Infectious Disease."

Research has also shown that warming ocean waters are
increasing the incidence of waterborne illnesses, including those caused by
toxic bacteria in shellfish.

This is costly to the economy as well as to human health and
survival. The World Bank estimates that a severe influenza pandemic could cost
the world economy $3 trillion. Environment Canada says air pollution alone
costs the Canadian economy billions of dollars a year because of increased
health-care costs, missed work days, and reduced productivity.

A key solution, according to the One Health Initiative, is
to look at the links between human, animal, and ecological health and to manage
our activities in a sustainable and holistic way. The US-based initiative is
bringing experts in human, animal, and environmental health together to study
these links.

Another promising area of research is natural capital
evaluation. Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to put a dollar value
on the numerous services nature provides, leaving them out of economic
calculations means they are often ignored. Forests and green spaces filter
water and store carbon. Urban green spaces provide cooling and protection from
storms. And, ecosystems in balance help to protect us from disease outbreaks.
Destroying these systems and replacing them with human-built infrastructure or
paying for the consequences often costs much more than profits gained from

With the world’s human population now at 7 billion and
growing, and the demand for technology and modern conveniences increasing, we
can’t control all our negative impacts. But we have to find better ways to live
within the limits nature and its cycles impose. Our physical health and
survival, and the health of our economies, depend on it.


Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster,
author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. This article was w
ritten with
contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications
Specialist Ian Hanington.

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