“For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today…” The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, October 19, 2017
Graphic Credit: World of Wallpapers
You can find many different resources on this website to learn more about the adverse health impacts of modern chemicals – “pollution” – and I hope you’ll explore the site to do just that. For two big, recent authoritative overviews, you can visit the report of The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health (October 2017) and check out the report on the health of American children by the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies and EPA.
But today I want to urge you take a moment and read about an even newer study* – or even read the study itself – a study that demonstrates that today, preventable exposures to environmental toxins are resulting in health costs that exceed 10% of global GDP. This study provides a compelling critique of current models of costing the burden of disease (BoD), and provides an alternative approach that fits best with what we’ve learned today, not only about premature deaths but about chronic illness and life-long disabilities.
Photo Credit: WNPR
If you’re wondering how much money 10% of GDP is, it would equal roughly ten trillion dollars. Can you even wrap your head around that figure? I can’t count that many zeroes myself. But given that last fall the EPA and NIHS calculated that the cost of environmentally-related illnesses (not even of all categories) in U.S. children alone at $76 billion annually, this new conclusion makes appalling sense.
In “Calculation of the disease burden associated with environmental chemical exposures: Application of toxicological information in health economic estimation” Philippe Grandjean, MD. (Harvard University and the University of Southern Denmark), and Martine Bellanger, (EHESP School of Public Health in France) explain why they are convinced that calculations currently used as international references are “serious underestimations” of the economic costs associated with preventable environmental risk factors caused by chemical substances in the everyday environment – meaning not only industrial and occupational chemicals but also consumer chemicals, including neurotoxicants, air pollution from multiple sources and endocrine disrupting chemicals.
As jaw-dropping as the dollar figures are, what’s most important is to understand the damage behind them, to individuals, families, communities, nations and the viability of human society. 10% may seem like a small or manageable fraction – of money, of people – but it really is not. In fact, it attests to extraordinarily widespread diseases and disorders that are now riddling human communities. You can get a sense of how this works if you Imagine a huge, magnificent tapestry, made up of many different sections; then imagine that a plague of moths attacks the tapestry, eating its way throughout the fabric, such that 10% of the material actually consists of myriad holes. In some sections of the fabric, there are higher concentrations of holes, but all parts contain some. Imagine the radiating stresses around each of the holes to the surrounding fabric. Imagine the way that many clusters of smaller holes are merging and turning into much larger tears in the tapestry. This exercise illustrates how the adverse health effects embodied in a figure of “10% of GDP” increasingly weaken the 90% – that is, the integrity of the whole fabric of human society, and so threaten all of us.
This is what is happening to us, now, as a species, thanks to the impact of toxic chemicals – they are the moths eating larger and larger holes in our beautiful tapestry. And this is why a growing, and increasingly frightened chorus of experts in health and environment are calling so urgently for the elevation of concerns about toxics to the same priority as concerns about climate change.
HEALTH FORGOTTEN IN CLIMATE
Photo Credit: Heal Newsletter
“This much higher – and more accurate – estimate of the health costs of environmental chemicals exposures should be a wake-up call for decision-makers in Europe and beyond to give public health policy and prevention strategies a rethink.” Genon K. Jensen, Executive Director of HEAL
If you follow one of the links to the study, you will find yourself on the website of HEAL – the Health and Environmental Alliance, HEAL is an important network of European experts and agencies, and it has a wonderful website and information exchange. Its Executive Director, Genon Jensen, voiced a concern now being heard around the world:
“The new findings are yet another reason to bring health to the top of the policy agenda and focus more on prevention strategies against non-communicable diseases, in Europe and beyond. Cost calculations like this one are extremely important because they guide policy makers in priority setting. Just as exposure to environmental chemicals such as neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors, or air pollution have huge costs for society, taking early action to reduce exposure can result in huge health, economic and well-being benefits.”
When it comes to adverse health effects, the prescription for Europe is even more urgent in Canada and the U.S., which lag seriously behind the EU in chemical regulation. And this is why, as I will explain in a blog coming soon, the continued refusal of the Canadian government to tackle toxic chemicals and the wholesale dismantling of the EPA are such disturbing concerns.
Meanwhile, have a look at some of the solutions key experts have advanced, in the sidebar.
*“Calculation of the disease burden associated with environmental chemical exposures: Application of toxicological information in health economic estimation.” Phillipe Granndjean and Martine Bellanger. Published online in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health. 5 December 2017. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com…
GREAT RESOURCES FOR POLICY-DRIVEN ACTIVISM
THE HEAL NEWSLETTER
The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organization addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). With the support of more than 70 member organizations, HEAL brings independent expertise and evidence from the health community to different decision-making processes. The HEAL alliance represents health professionals, not-for-profit health insurers, doctors, nurses, cancer and asthma groups, citizens, women’s groups, youth groups, environmental NGOs, scientists and public health research institutes. Members include international and Europe-wide organizations as well as national and local groups. You can follow HEAL on Facebook and Twitter @HealthandEnv.
In the context of significant public debate in Europe about the risk assessment and identification criteria of endocrine disrupting pesticides in particular, the HEAL newsletter provided these additional comments about the content of the Grandjean-Bellanger study, “Calculation of the disease burden associated with environmental chemical exposures: Application of toxicological information in health economic estimation,”
Existing calculations have put the global Burden of Disease (BoD) at 5.18% of total DALYs (Disability-Adjusted Life Years). Ambient air quality has been the main contributor because of factors, such as gaps in environmental exposure data. (2)
However, even air pollution calculations were underestimates as they did not take into account current evidence on harm from pre-natal exposures, for example. In addition, the current underestimates by the World Health Organization and Global Burden of Disease are primarily based on deaths and severe clinical conditions while less serious conditions, such as childhood and adult obesity, male infertility, fibroids, and endometriosis amongst others, are mostly disregarded.
The new study covers substances such as mercury, organophosphate pesticides, brominated diethyl ethers, and several endocrine disrupting chemicals, which the authors say are serious health hazards that need to be confronted.
The authors call for a new paradigm for the proper evaluation of the environmental BoD. They particularly emphasise the impacts of environmental exposures on the human brain.
“Our results show that functional deficits, especially regarding cognition, greatly add to the total environmental Burden of Disease (BoD) and that total costs are substantially higher than those calculated in terms of the DALY losses that are linked to specific medical diagnoses.”
THE GLOBAL ALLIANCE ON HEALTH AND POLLUTION (GAHP)
If you want to become an anti- toxics advocate, GAHP’s website provides a wealth of resources, tools, fact-sheets, proposals and references that can inspire action in all places and at all levels. Here is how they describe their organization:
The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) was formed in 2012 by Pure Earth, the World Bank, UNEP, UNDP, UNIDO, Asian Development Bank, the European Commission, Ministries of Environment and Health of many low- and middle-income countries to address pollution and health at scale.
GAHP envisions a world where the health of present and future generations, especially children and pregnant women, is safe from toxic pollution. GAHP is a collaborative body, made up of more than 50 members and dozens of observers (see www.gahp.net) that advocates on behalf of its low- and middle-income country members for resources and solutions to pollution problems. As an advocacy and collaboration network, GAHP seeks to build demand for pollution prevention and mitigation programs that are implemented by its members. GAHP builds public, political, technical and financial support to address pollution globally, tracks pollution impact and interventions, promotes scientific research on pollution and raises awareness on the scope and impacts of all types of pollution. GAHP also directly assists low- and middle-income countries to prioritize and address pollution through health and pollution action planning (HPAP) and other development planning processes, in collaboration with its members.
THE LANCET COMMISSION ON POLLUTION AND HEALTH
The Lancet is considered the most important medical journal in the English language. If you want references that carry the weight of authority, and great ideas for what to do, visit these folks. Here is the open letter from the co-chairs of the Commission, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan and Richard Fuller, BE.
It is time to put pollution on the map.
Pollution accounts for 16% of all deaths worldwide – 3 times more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined; and 15 times more than all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution accounts for more than 1 in 4 deaths. These are the facts. And there’s much more in the new report from The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, the first report of its kind to quantify the cost of pollution, and the cost of inaction against pollution, measured in lives, money, and lost opportunity for sustainable development.
For too long, pollution has been sidelined, overshadowed, ignored by the world, in part because it is a complicated topic with many causes, and as many outcomes. Often it kills slowly, and indirectly, hiding its tracks.
With this report, we bring pollution out of the shadows. This report is the result of two years of collective work from ourselves and our colleagues around the world, representing some of the world’s most influential leaders, researchers and practitioners in the fields of pollution management, environmental health and sustainable development.
We, the authors, present this report and call on the world-decision makers, business leaders, international agencies, funders, governments, students, teachers, everyone-to act now to take control of pollution. This is one global problem that can be solved. This report does not just tell us why we have to take up arms. More importantly, it tells us how to win the war. It is a battle we cannot lose. We just have to fight it.
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Through analyses of existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals pollution’s severe and underreported contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. It uncovers the economic costs of pollution to low-income and middle-income countries. The Commission will inform key decision makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on health and economic development, and about available cost-effective pollution control solutions and strategies.
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