Healthy Planet, Healthy People

This is a guest blog post by Hydaway ambassador Zelphia Peterson. Follow her on Instagram @z_claire29.

It seems like the latest millennial buzzword is “sustainability.” The term is popping up everywhere, from the fashion industry to a ban on Starbucks straws. But what does it mean to be truly sustainable? And why should we care? I think everyone can agree that we’d like to have a clean and healthy planet, free from graphic images of floating trash islands and turtles wrapped in plastic waste. Those of us who think about it feel a sense of responsibility – both out of stewardship for the earth we’ve inherited and for the earth we will pass on to our children. There’s the element of sheer necessity and the desire to avoid an apocalyptic end by plastic. In addition, more and more people want to keep our earth looking as beautiful and unblemished as possible.

Those are all certainly valid and appropriate reasons to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle and advocate for policies that support sustainability and the preservation of our planet. However, there’s one more facet to this conversation that can sometimes be overlooked. Early on in my education, the connection between a healthy environment and healthy people was made abundantly clear. I majored in public health as an undergrad student, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in international public health. At every level, we took classes that focused on the ways that environment and human health interconnect. And frankly, these important connections aren’t really discussed widely enough or often enough.

There are two main avenues that the health of the planet impacts the health of populations. The first is through climate shift. Most of you who hear the phrase “climate shift” probably immediately translate that into the more widespread phrase “global warming.” However, the definition of global warming isn’t always adequate because it fails to take into account anything other than rising temperatures. Yes, temperatures are generally rising and that is concerning, but some places are growing colder or experiencing atypical levels of precipitation. This might  not seem like a big deal for human health until you start taking a look at the consequences of a climate shifting. Climate shift can lead to changes in crop output or crop shortages, especially in regions that are dependant  on agriculture. If these changes last long enough or are severe enough, it could lead to famine and malnutrition. In such cases, the first to suffer tend to be the very young, the very old, and the disenfranchised.

Climate shift (and by extension, more extreme weather patterns) also have a side effect of natural disasters. Things like lasting droughts, hurricanes, abnormally long winters, and extensive flooding are just some of the examples of climate-induced disasters.. While the natural disaster itself can cause massive damage and loss of life, it’s really what happens afterwards that is truly devastating.

Especially for large scale natural disasters, the human impact can often be measured in things like limited access to drinking water or contaminated drinking water, loss of access to medical treatment, a loss of safe housing and protection from the elements, and unreliable or contaminated sources of food. Individually, all of those “side effects” have the potential to be devastating. Put all together, they place affected populations at an exponentially increased risk for disease, disability, and loss of life.

The second way that environmental health influences human health is through pollution. This is becoming a more noticeable problem in urban areas, where output from cars, machinery, and large buildings is heavily concentrated. This pollution can take the form of air, water, or soil pollution. Air pollution (like smog) can lead to breathing problems or exacerbate existing conditions like asthma. Water pollution (such as what happened in Flint, MI) can render drinking and cleaning water unsafe, which affects large portions of the local population for long chunks of time. This type of contamination can be particularly difficult to detect, and so often leads to more illness or death that any other kind of pollution. Soil pollution (like what happens after a pipeline bursts or hazardous material is leaked) can damage crops, render food unsafe to eat, or at the worst act as a slow poison to those living in the immediate vicinity.

At the risk of sounding over-dramatic or fatalistic, these problems have an enormous and often deadly impact on human health. We don’t often see what happens to a population after a natural disaster or after the effects of pollution have been discovered, because the news cameras have vanished and everybody else has moved on. But the consequences that these incidents have on human health linger, sometimes for generations. And usually, when these stories are told, they’re told from the angle of preserving the environment and preventing a repeat, not about the impact it’s had on the people who live there.

When it comes down to it,  if we want to be health conscious, we need to be earth conscious.

Taking care of our planet is taking care of ourselves. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the environment – when it flourishes, so do we. Neglecting to take care of our natural resources isn’t just harmful to the planet in the long run, it directly and indirectly harms the health of everyone living on it. So I challenge you: find ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Little actions by lots of people add up to big changes. Together, we have the ability to improve the health of our planet and by extension, ourselves.

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