Recent discussions in Tasmania’s media have revealed that there is a link between lower socio-economic status and poor health. This has been attributed to lifestyle factors; however there has been no acknowledgement of the possibility that it might also be linked to environmental factors, such as residential areas in close proximity to industry and occupations that involve exposure to toxic chemicals.
The environmental justice movement, from the US has revealed evidence that polluting industries and contaminated sites are usually located in areas where populations are poor and worse still, in communities that have a higher number of non-white residents. (Agyeman, J., Bullard, R., et al, 2003)
This movement acknowledges several facts including:
• Poorer people are forced into jobs where they might have to work with toxic chemicals (ie they are forced to choose between a salary and their health)
• They live in areas that are located close to contaminated sites, waste dumps and polluting industries
• Poorer people are often forced to consume products, including food, that are cheap, and often contain more toxic substances which jeopardise their health
These factors, which are now well-recognised globally, should be taken into account when analysing health data and statistics in Tasmania. Lifestyle, is not the only contributing factor. Worldwide, the current discourse on public health contains growing awareness of the strong relationship between environmental health and human health.
At present there is a gap between how these two areas of health are dealt with by our society. In reality, they should be treated together. This can only be achieved through sustainable practices that incorporate transdisciplinary management approaches. (Constanza, 1992; Karr, 1997; Hancock, 1997; Walker, 2006)
Current management approaches have failed to acknowledge the very important connection between ecosystem health and human health and as such do not contain structures that are equipped to dealing with emerging public health issues resulting from phenomena like contaminated sites or toxins from industries.
A transdisciplinary approach is important in understanding the complex dynamics and connections between human health and ecosystem health. (Karr, 1997; Walker, 2006, Rapport, 1997).
As ecosystem services decline, due to rampant overuse of natural resources, there is a corresponding decline in the mental and physical health of the human and animal populations that are an integral part of the ecosystem.
Karr (1997) and Hancock (1997) both describe how an anthropocentric approach to ecosystems has resulted in a gap between ecosystem health and human health, which ultimately results in deterioration of human health.
Emerging theories explore ecosystems and human social systems as complex adaptive structures that undergo constant change in response to alterations in the systems. (Connor, 2002) These concepts are important in understanding how human activities can impact on ecosystems and how feedback loops from disturbances operate, in turn, impacting on human health.
The key to sustainability is resilience of social systems and ecosystems. (Holling, 2002, 2004; Walker, 2006; Sheffer, 2001) Unsustainable human activities undermine the resilience of ecosystems and are a potential threat to stable regimes that govern these systems.
Unsustainable practices cause events that drive ecosystems towards thresholds, past which unpredictable behaviour can occur that can have disastrous consequences to human health. (Holling, 2002; Walker, 2006; Sheffer, 2001)
An example is the unmonitored use of pesticides in industries like agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Pesticide exposure can cause permanent changes to DNA in humans and animals that can be passed on from one generation to the next with unpredictable health outcomes. (Walker, 2006)
The use of pesticides to ‘solve’ the problem of pests on crops, is an example of what is called ‘iatrogenic’ disease or ‘doctor-caused’ disease where the cure for one health problem causes another problem. Hancock, (1997) extends this idea to include ‘ecological iatrogenesis’, where an ecological problem (such as pests on crops) is treated with a remedy (pesticides) that causes new, more serious health issues for the ecosystem.
Karr (1997) describes a process of ‘biotic impoverishment’ where disturbances to the ecosystem occur on 3 levels and result in the origins of most health problems in humans: -Indirect depletion of living systems through degradation of nonliving natural resources (reduction of soil, water and air quality)
-Direct depletion of the human system (reduced quality of life)
-Direct depletion of non-human living system (including extinction of species)
Connor (2002) reports that negative disruptions in ecosystems can cause severe psychological distress in human populations especially depression and ‘sostaligia’ (a sense of depression linked to degradation of landscapes). He examined people in the Hunter Valley region of NSW who had been affected by heavy mining operations. Populations who suffer health problems as a result of environmental contamination in the areas in which they live, are likely to have a higher degree of psychological strain that can result in a number of mental health issues like anxiety, stress and depression.
Karr (1997) advises against ‘treating’ ecosystem health as a separate issue from public health as it creates a gap and results in wrong treatment methodologies being employed to address health issues.
To achieve true sustainability ecosystem health and human or public health should be dealt with and treated together in all considerations, planning and practices. Karr (1997) recommends to bridge the gap between ecosystem health and human health a transdisciplinary approach needs to be taken, with cooperation from the human health community and the ecological health community.
Sustainable, Long-term protection of ecosystem components requires a focus on individual organisms, including non-human organisms and the communities to which they belong.
A social shift to sustainable practices is the key to maintaining both ecosystem health and human health simultaneously.
Healthy, sustainable ecosystems naturally preserve human health.
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Constanza, et al, (1992), Ecosystem Health, New Goals for Environmental Management, Washington DC, Island Press, available online at googlebooks.com
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Hancock, T., (1997), Ecosystem Health, Ecological Iatrogenesis, and Sustainable Human Development, Ecohealth Perspectives, Vol 3, No 4, 1997
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