Health-care pros signal importance of keeping the environment healthy
By Dr. David Suzuki with Faisal Moola
You can't have healthy people without a healthy environment. We know that pollution and
environmental degradation can cause a range of health problems, from mild stomach ailments to
birth defects, cancer, and death. This creates strain on the health-care system and ends up
costing us all.
According to some estimates, adverse environmental exposures in Canada are associated with up
to 25,000 deaths, 194,000 hospitalizations, 1.8 million restricted activity days for asthma
sufferers, and 24,000 new cases of cancer each year, with costs as high as $9.1 billion a year.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that environmental risk factors play a role
in more than 80 per cent of the diseases reported by the organization and that one quarter of
all diseases and deaths -- one third for children -- are directly related to environmental
The WHO also found that disease related to environmental factors is much higher overall in the
developing world than in developed countries but that the per capita rate of some
non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, is higher in developed
The health sector itself, which contributes about 10 per cent of Canada's gross domestic
product and employs close to 1.7 million people, creates considerable waste and pollution and
consumes a lot of energy. Recognizing the connection between healthy people and a healthy
environment, leading health-professional organizations have joined together to call for an
environmentally responsible health sector in Canada.
The Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Nurses' Association, Canadian Dental Association,
Canadian Pharmacists' Association, and more, with help from the David Suzuki Foundation,
recently voiced a commitment to make the sector greener and to get governments to consider the
links between health and the environment when making policy decisions.
Beyond cleaning up its own act and trying to get the government to pay more attention to the
environment, the sector hopes to set an example for others to follow. And, as health-care
providers, they hope to encourage all Canadians to become more environmentally aware and thus
Leadership from this sector is much needed and welcomed. A recent poll shows that health
professionals are among the most trusted community leaders. And we all rely at times on our
health-care institutions and facilities. Many people in the health-care sector are also guided
by a principle to "do no harm". One thing this suggests is that institutions devoted to healing
should not be significant consumers of resources and sources of environmental harm through air
and wastewater emissions, hazardous- and solid-waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions, and
toxic chemical usage. Thus, being green has a symbolic and practical significance for
Greening their own operations is a great start for health-care institutions, but health
professionals have been demonstrating environmental leadership in the wider community as well.
For example, the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Registered Nurses' Association of
Ontario advocated for a recent ban on "cosmetic" or unnecessary lawn and garden pesticides in
As we see so often when it comes to measures to protect the environment, it makes good economic
sense to spend money on addressing environmental factors to prevent illness and disease, too.
In some cases, those measures are fairly straightforward. Removing lead from gasoline has
substantially reduced the incidence of mental retardation caused by lead exposure. And U.S.
authorities have estimated that regulations introduced in 2005 requiring American power plants
to reduce air pollution will provide between US$85 billion and US$100 billion in annual health
benefits by 2015, an amount roughly equal to 25 times the cost of implementation.
Some issues are more complicated. Global warming is associated with a wide range of concerns
related to health and the environment, from contaminated water supplies to food shortages.
The organizations supporting the greening of Canada's health sector recognize this, and are
encouraging the use of energy-conserving techniques and products in health facilities, along
with reducing waste through reusing and recycling and finding sources of materials that use
We have many reasons to protect the environment. As health professionals have recognized, two
big reasons are to protect our health and to save money. We can all follow their example by
doing whatever we can to reduce our negative impact on the planet. After all, healthy
environments lead to healthy people and healthy economies.
Relevant Studies and links:
Health Professionals' Joint Statement
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