Senate needs to protect our health and environment

Senate needs to protect our health and environment

Dr Trevor Hancock

19 March 2019

696 words

In recent weeks we have seen large Canadian industries pressuring the Senate to favour their special interests over the wider health and environmental interests of Canadians. In the process, this unelected chamber is being asked to subvert the will of the elected House of Commons by delaying and effectively killing two Bills.

First, we have seen a concerted effort by Canada’s fast food and junk food industry to derail Bill S-228, which is intended to protect children from the predatory marketing of unhealthy food to our children and youth. The Heart and Stroke Foundation, which supports the legislation, has referred to the industry’s approach as “bullying” which is “putting business before children’s health”.

Ironically this Bill actually began in the Senate, from where it went to the House of Commons. It was passed in September 2018, and now awaits the final vote in the Senate. But it has been stuck there ever since. Senator Nancy Greene Raine, now retired, but who introduced it in the Senate initially, has stated “Industry has been lobbying hard to try to kill the Bill and it is obviously being successful”.

Independent Senator Tony Dean, a former professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, wrote in iPolitics on March 15th, “In recent months, we have seen a growing strategy by some of our more partisan colleagues to delay Senate approval of . . . bills, presumably to ensure they die on the Order Paper when Parliament is dissolved later this year”. He described Bill S-228 as “a perfect example of this”, and expressed “considerable concern it will not proceed to a vote before the pre-election break”.

Don’t think for one second that this industry is doing this in the interests of the public. They are pushing back hard because they fear it will reduce their profits, at a time when the new Canada Food Guide has again pointed out that a healthy diet does not include most of their products. But as Senator Raine says, “it is time to put our kids’ health before profits”.

Even more recently, we have seen Canada’s resource industries – the oil and gas, nuclear, uranium and hydro-electric industries along with the Alberta government – combining to bully the Senate over Bill C-69, which concerns a more comprehensive approach to assessing the health and environmental impacts of their activities. As the Sierra Club notes, “the oil and gas industry wants to kill fixes to environmental laws and continue to operate with minimal oversight”.

The Bill was passed in the Commons in June 2018, but the Senate committee studying the Bill has now decided to go across Canada seeking input, which is seen by the Bill’s supporters as simply a delaying tactic. John Tasker on CBC News on March 17th noted this “may compromise Parliament’s ability to pass the . . . law ahead of the October 2019 general election” – at which point it dies.

Of course, these industries dress it up as being all about jobs and workers, but make no mistake, it’s all about profits. If these industries were really interested in the wellbeing of their workers and the communities where they operate, they would encourage and support unionization and would welcome the highest health and environmental standards in the world.

So who do you trust to protect our health and the environment for future generations? The junk food industry, with their unhealthy products, the resource industry, with their long record of pollution and harm to the health of workers and communities, or groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Sierra Club and other health and environmental organisations that work in the public interest and support these Bills? I know whose side I am on.

Sober second thought is all very well, but this is not what is happening here. What is happening is that large industries are using their economic and political muscle to delay and kill legislation that will protect Canadians from their actions. Senators need to be reminded that they are not there to do industry’s bidding but to work in the best interests of Canadians. It’s time the Senate passed Bills S-228 and C-69.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

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Ecotoxicity and the enormity of tiny-ness

Ecotoxicity and the enormity of tiny-ness

Dr Trevor Hancock

12 March 2019

701 words

Forty years ago Ross Hume Hall, then a professor of biochemistry at McMaster University, and Donald Chant, a University of Toronto professor of zoology and one of the founders of Pollution Probe, co-authored an important report on ecotoxicity for the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council. “The whole environment, including humans, is being contaminated in a sea of chemicals”, they wrote; “The term for this environmental defilement is ecotoxicity.”

One of the key concepts underlying ecotoxicity, they went on to say, is the “enormity of tiny-ness” in biological systems. First, they helped us understand just how tiny measures such as parts per million are: “One part per million (ppm) is equivalent to one inch in 16 miles, one minute in 2 years”.

In our daily lives, such small amounts are insignificant. If you are an engineer building a one-kilometre long bridge, I suspect a difference in length of one millimeter – a difference of one part per million – is not very important. And if you had a million dollars, I doubt you would worry about a difference of one cent, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb) – a ppb being one thousand times smaller than a ppm, so one inch in 16,000 miles, one minute in 2,000 years.

But in biology it’s different; such tiny amounts do matter. For example, our daily requirement for Vitamin B12 is about 2 – 3 micrograms per day, and average weight for adult humans globally is 62 kg. So we need less than 1 ten-billionth of our body weight of B12 daily – but without it we will develop a life-threatening disease, pernicious anaemia.
On the other hand, tiny amounts of chemicals can also be harmful. Take dioxins, for example, which are mainly “unwanted by-products of a wide range of manufacturing processes including smelting, chlorine bleaching of paper pulp and the manufacturing of some herbicides and pesticides”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), although there are also natural sources. Dioxins are “highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer”, the WHO states.

In 2001 a joint expert committee of the WHO and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization established what’s called a provisional tolerable monthly intake of these chemicals (the amount we can ingest without detectable health effects) of 70 picograms/kg per month, which is about 120 picograms per day for a 60 kg adult. Since a picogram is one-millionth of a microgram, this level is about 20 thousand times less than the daily dose of Vitamin B12 needed to keep us healthy.

Dioxins are a family of chemicals that are part of the ‘dirty dozen’ – twelve persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are so toxic that they are covered by the 2001 Stockholm Convention, a UN treaty intended to protect human health and the environment. The Convention describes POPs as “chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment”.

Here we have other important aspects of ecotoxicity. First, these chemicals are new to nature and cannot be easily broken down, so they persist. Second, they are taken up by and stored in fat. Third, because they persist and accumulate in fatty tissues, the seemingly tiny concentrations of these pollutants that we emit are re-concentrated by nature and presented back to us through the food chain. For dioxins, for example, WHO notes that “more than 90 percent of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish”.

This is because when a tiny fish eats plankton, it gets a dose of POPs that are then stored in its fats and oils. It is then eaten by a small fish, which is eaten by a bigger fish – and at each step, the amount and concentration of the POP increases. Then a seal eats the largest fish – and we eat the seal. A chart in the 2010 World Ocean Review shows the concentration of one POP – PCB – in seal fat is 80 million times the levels in sea water. This is another way in which tiny amounts can become enormous.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Time to shift the bell curve toward health

Time to shift the bell curve toward health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 March 2019

699 words

Life is lived on a bell curve. Many attributes of a population – height, for example – are distributed on a bell-shaped curve, with the average at the centre and then decreasing numbers of people as we get further from the centre. At each end of the curve are the small number of people who are either extremely tall or short. This pattern is found throughout nature, and is one of the most important concepts in biology, medicine and public health.

Understanding the bell curve is important for the work of public health. For example, we know that being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing diabetes. An example from a Canadian population health primer notes that those who are very obese have a 32 percent chance of developing diabetes over the next 10 years, while those who are obese have a 21 percent risk. But people who are overweight but not obese have only a 10 percent risk, and those with a normal healthy weight or who are underweight have only a 3 to 7 percent risk.

So you might think it would make sense to focus our prevention efforts on those who are obese – and you would be wrong. Because in doing so you would miss 61 percent of those who develop diabetes. Forty percent of cases would occur in the overweight population and an additional 21 percent of cases would occur in the low-risk normal weight population.

This is known as Rose’s Paradox, identified by the noted British epidemiologist Sir Geoffrey Rose. He pointed out that while the people at one end of the bell curve have a higher risk of getting a disease, more cases are actually found in the population with moderate or low risk. This is because there are far more people in these categories. For this reason, it is better to try to shift the curve for the entire population a bit.

Moreover, this doesn’t just apply to individuals, but to entire neighbourhoods. My friend and colleague, the late Clyde Hertzman, established and led the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at UBC. He led pioneering work in BC on early child development, and as a result, BC became the first jurisdiction in the world with maps of early development for every neighbourhood and school district in the province. These maps helped to show the relationships between patterns of vulnerability in young children and their socio-economic conditions.

As would be expected, lower incomes and more impoverished living conditions and neighbourhood resources were linked to worse outcomes. But importantly, HELP also showed that “although the highest risk of vulnerability is found in the poorest neighbourhoods of town, the largest number of children at risk is spread across middle-class neighbourhoods”.

This has important implications for public health policy and programs. It is tempting to focus only on the small number of high-risk people, groups and communities – so called ‘targeted’ interventions – because it seems as if that would be cheaper. But its not a very effective strategy because it misses most of the cases. For example, BC’s Nurse-Family Partnership provides regular visits by a public health nurse throughout a woman’s first pregnancy, and those visits continue until the child reaches two years of age.

But it is only available to a select group of women; those under 19, or those aged 20 – 24 who are lone parents, or have low income and education or are experiencing social, financial, or housing challenges, including being homeless. Nobody would argue that this is not a high-risk group, but Rose’s Paradox and Clyde Hertzman’s work suggest the program may be missing most of the cases that need support.

If we want to have the greatest impact, we need to affect the entire population, What is needed, as Clyde and his colleagues at HELP point out in the BC Atlas of Child Development, is a combination of civil society interventions that “create family-friendly environments across class and ethnic divides”; universal interventions, with barriers to vulnerable people removed, and targeted interventions.

In the UK, this is known as ‘proportionate universalism’; everyone gets the intervention, but those with the greatest need get more. It’s the best way to shift the curve towards health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Governance failures behind our Silent Spring

Governance failures behind our Silent Spring

Dr Trevor Hancock

26 February 2019

701 words

Last week I wrote about the devastation of the world’s insect population, caused to a significant extent by intensive farming and pesticide use. The management of pesticides in Canada has been a travesty for decades, but this failure of governance to protect human health and the environment is hardly a new problem.

Fifty-seven years ago, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson named the problem: we live in “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”. Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, notes on her website that “Carson believed the [US] federal government was part of the problem (and) identified human hubris and financial self-interest as the crux of the problem”.

This is very clear when it comes to regulating pesticides. I cut my environmental health teeth fighting the pesticide industry and Health Canada in the early 1980s, when I was an Associate Medical Officer of Health in the City of Toronto. We were recommending a ban on 2-4 D in the city, on the grounds that controlling dandelions in parks and gardens – known as cosmetic pesticide use – was less problematic than risking the potential health effects. I came to an early recognition that the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada functioned more like the industry protection branch.

I went on to co-found the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). For years, CAPE has fought to reduce or eliminate both cosmetic and in some cases agricultural pesticide use. It has done so based on evidence, the application of the precautionary principle, and its professional and public interest concern in protecting health and the environment.

In its work CAPE and its many community and environmentalist partners have tangled constantly with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), established within Health Canada in 1995. On its website, CAPE notes “gaps and flaws in this review process leave Canadians inadequately protected from health and environmental risks associated with the use of toxic pesticides.”

But CAPE is not alone in its criticism. The federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, part of the office of the Auditor General, has undertaken three reviews of the PMRA since 2003, and they disclose some serious flaws. In 2003 the Commissioner reported “Overall, we conclude that the federal government is not managing pesticides effectively. We found weaknesses in many areas . . . (which) . . . raises serious questions about the overall management of the health and environmental risks associated with pesticides”. But note, this comes after decades of criticism from health and environmental organisations acting in the public interest – and still the PMRA could not get it right.

Again in 2015, the Commissioner had serious concerns, noting numerous problems and concluding that in a number of important areas PMRA “had not always acted in a timely manner to fulfill its statutory objective of preventing unacceptable risks to the health of Canadians and the environment from the use of pesticides”. In fact, for three of the most widely used pesticides in Canada – atrazine, glyphosate and neonicotinoids as a class – we have lower standards and are years if not decades behind Europe in protecting the health of Canadians.

Atrazine, a herbicide that is still registered and used in Canada, although declining, was banned in Europe in 2003. Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that is a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation – but not according to the PMRA, which seems to think it knows better. And neonicotinoids are widely used insecticides that are linked to harm to bees and other beneficial insects. The EU banned them for all outdoor agricultural use from the end of 2018, but the PMRA has taken only small steps to reduce their use.

The fundamental problem is that the PMRA – and government more generally –does not see its prime function being to protect the health and wellbeing of the public or the environment. Instead, its key objective seems to be the short-term and purely profit-oriented aims of industry. In their blind pursuit of economic growth and their misplaced confidence in dodgy corporate science, governments turned a blind eye to all the warnings, while we all suffer the consequences.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Silent Spring is getting closer

Silent Spring is getting closer

Dr Trevor Hancock

20 February 2019

701 words

Fifty-seven years ago, in her eloquent and powerful 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson – a marine scientist who worked for many years for the US Fish and Wildlife Service – warned of the consequences of the widepread use of DDT and other new pesticides. It is astonishing to re-read this classic now, so many years after it was written. There is the clarity of thinking and the pleasure of good writing, of course, but it is the prescience that takes your breath away.

She could have been writing today when she states: “Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm”. Future historians, she wrote, “may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion” in seeking to “control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment”. And she warned “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. In a very disturbing and unusually blunt review of the state of the world’s insects in Biological Conservation in January, Australian entomologists, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys describe “the dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction”.

Insects, they note “are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems”, so the results of these losses, which “may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”, will be “catastrophic to say the least”. As the Australian cartoon strip ‘First Dog on the Moon’ notes, “this is literally the biggest news story in the world” and should be front page news.

Much of the data with which they are working is for Europe and North America, since there is good historical data to allow for the determination of trends. However, they note that “insects are not expected to fare differently in tropical and developing countries”, because the underlying causes are now world-wide.

The root cause, they state, is “the intensification of agriculture over the past six decades . . . and within it the widespread, relentless use of synthetic pesticides”. In addition, loss of habitat through urbanization, introduction of invasive species and climate change all contribute to the decline.

So “the conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades”. They go on to call for “a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices”.

Interestingly, this links to and reinforces the dietary prescription of both the recent EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy and sustainable diets and the new Canadian Food Guidelines that I wrote about recently. One of the benefits of a low-meat, plant-based diet is that more people can be fed on less land, allowing for a less intensive form of agriculture.

But insects are not the only victims, serious though that is; humans are affected too. Rachel Carson warned us – and our governments – a long time ago that “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” And she pointed out that these new chemicals, “to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year” have “no counterparts in nature” and are “totally outside the limits of biological experience.” Thus we cannot adapt, nor can other species – certainly not in any timely manner.

Finally, Rachel Carson notes “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons without their consent and often without their knowledge.” This amounts to an unethical and completely unauthorised experiment to find out what happens when you expose entire human and non-human populations from before birth and throughout life to a toxic soup of chemicals. That is a disgracful failure of governance, which I will dsicuss next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

Why we still need to love this planet

Why we still need to love this planet

Dr Trevor Hancock

11 February 2019

700 words

The proximity of Valentine’s Day and the plan by a UVic Student, Antonia Paquin, to create love letters for the Earth for Valentine’s Day, put me in mind of the work of Dr. Helen Caldicott, an internationally renowned Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist. Now 80 years old, she sprang to fame in part due to a short film of a lecture she gave on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Made for Canada’s NFB, “If You Love This Planet” won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1982 – helped perhaps by the US Justice Department officially labelling it “foreign political propaganda”.

Dr. Caldicott was no stranger to controversy. In the 1970s she helped lead the opposition to French atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. She went on to lead Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a US-based anti-nuclear organisation founded in 1961. In the early 1980s I was an Associate Medical Officer of Health in the City of Toronto, and we too were inspired by her work, and by the work of the Canadian branch of PSR, which later became Physicians for Global Survival (PGS).

Like Health Departments in many other cities around the world at the time, we did a report on the expected health impacts of a one-megaton nuclear weapon air burst above Toronto. The findings were devastating, shocking the public and politicians alike and contributing to the global movement to limit nuclear weapons, which ultimately led to several treaties to limit nuclear weapons. The international umbrella group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, co-founded by American and Soviet physicians, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its work.

That work is not over, as the recent decision by the US and Russia to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty demonstrates. Nuclear war remains the greatest single threat to the health of people and myriad other species, and to the survival of human civilisation. But we now face an equally serious, slower but more certain threat; human-induced global ecological change, in particular climate change. And once again, physicians have been mobilising for many years to protect health.

In 1992, PSR expanded its mission to address these global environmental threats, as did Helen Caldicott, whose 1992 book “If You Love This Planet” was focused not so much on the nuclear threat but on the ecological threat. And here in Canada, I was one of the co-founders in 1993 of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), whose mission is to better human health by protecting the planet.

The current President of CAPE is Dr. Courtney Howard, an ER physician based in Yellowknife. She reminds me of Helen Caldicott – smart, passionate, eloquent and seemingly tireless. She is particularly focused on climate change, and has led the Canadian work on the Lancet Climate Countdown Report, an annual international report on the health impacts of climate change.

Most recently, CAPE was on Parliament Hill in February 5th, along with representatives from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Urban Public Health Network, calling on federal parties to recognize that climate change is the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century, and to make climate solutions a priority in the 2019 federal election.

Finally, back to Antonia Paquin’s plan for love letters to the Earth. It’s an important idea at two levels. First, it’s a youth-led initiative, part of a growing global movement of young people rising up and saying ‘enough’ – witness the high school climate strikes, including here in Victoria, inspired by the 15 year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. I am grateful to the young people who are organising and leading these strikes.

Second, it’s about changing our relationship with the Earth. We have lost our connection with nature, seeing it as an object apart from us that is there for us to exploit, rather than as something we are part of and dependent upon. If we are to save the Earth and ourselves from ourselves we need to re-establish a reverence for nature, we need to be able to feel the pain we are inflicting on the Earth, we need to love this planet.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

Local councils are right to sue fossil fuel industry

Local councils are right to sue fossil fuel industry

Dr Trevor Hancock

6 February 2019

697 words

Considerable derision has been heaped on Victoria City Council for endorsing a class action lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry, seeking financial compensation for the added costs the City will incur as a result of climate change. But far from complaining, we should be praising them, and other local municipal councils that are also preparing to sue. Not only are they being prudent managers of the public purse, seeking to protect taxpayers from added costs, they are also being leaders in addressing climate change.

The City’s latest action follows its November 2017 letter to 20 of the world’s largest oil and coal companies in which the City asked them to “pay your fair share of the costs of climate change that face our community”. The City took the view that “You cannot make billions of dollars selling your product, knowing that it is causing significant financial harm to communities around the world, and not expect to pay for at least some of that harm”.

The costs are significant; a 2012 report from the BC government on the cost to adapt flood protection to meet the rise in sea level predicted by 2100 found the cost for Metro Vancouver would be $9.5 billion. Note this is only the cost associated with sea-level rise; it does not include costs from other aspects of climate change such as forest fires and air pollution, severe weather events and so on. Nor does it include the health costs of climate change.

Victoria was not even the first in BC to act – that honour goes to the District of Highlands, which sent a letter in July 2017. Since then, letters have gone from Saanich, Colwood and View Royal, Sooke has voted to send one, and in September 2018 the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities sent a letter on behalf of its 53 local government members. All of this is supported by a West Coast Environmental Law campaign to hold the fossil fuel industry to account known as Climate Law in Our Hands.

Filing a lawsuit can have several beneficial effects. First, it can force open the files of the fossil fuel industry, so we can see just how much they knew about global warming and its relationship to their products, when they knew it, what they may have done to hide this evidence, what they may have done to create doubt in the minds of the public and what their lobbying efforts with governments may have been.

For those of us who are veterans of the ‘tobacco wars’, this all sounds very familiar. The tobacco industry was also sued because it was making money by selling a product it knew to be harmful, and then concealing that harm and casting doubt on the evidence in the minds of its users. In fact the Centre for International Environmental Law, in its research into the Tobacco Industry Archives (one of the fruits of the legal action against the tobacco industry) found close ties between the oil and tobacco industry, noting “the oil companies have benefitted from the tobacco playbook in their fight against climate science.”

Second, when a company is sued this has to be reported to investors, so it becomes an investment risk. Third, there is a degree of public exposure and awareness, which helps to change the social and political conversation and may lead to a loss of market appeal. Fourth, the prospect of facing law suits and negative public opinion may encourage the companies to shift away from fosil fuels.

Finally, if found liable, any costs awarded would not only help reimburse taxpayers but would raise the price of fossil fuels. This would be helpful – if unwelcome in some quarters in the short term – because we should pay the full cost of the fossil fuels we use. If we did, we would make very different choices.

Far from deriding local governments for being irresponsible, critics should be chiding the provincial and federal governments for failing to take action themselves. It would be a lot more effective if the BC government took on the case on behalf of local governments to recover their costs, adding in the provincial costs as well.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

 

 

Many global health threats linked to global change

Many global health threats linked to global change

Dr Trevor Hancock

29 January 2019

701 words

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a report on the top ten threats to health in 2019. Strikingly, several are related to global ecological change, marking perhaps a turning point in the recognition of the health implications of the rapid and massive ecological changes we are causing.

The first threat is air pollution and climate change. The WHO reports that nine out of ten people around the world breathe polluted air every day, causing around 7 million deaths annually, mainly from heart and lung diseases and cancer. About half the deaths are due to outdoor air pollution, mainly due to emissions from industry, transport and agriculture. Indoor air pollution from heating and cooking with biomass fuels is an important factor in the other half of the deaths.

Troublingly, about 90 percent of those deaths are in middle and low-income countries, according to the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. This is a pattern seen in most of the other major health threats facing the world today.

The major source of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, which of course is also the major cause of climate change. While the WHO estimates that climate change will contribute to about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, many see that as a considerable underestimate. Emerging evidence suggests the impact of climate change on health and society will be more serious and more rapid than we used to think.

The second major health threat is non-communicable or chronic disease – heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and the like – with “over 85% of these premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries”. The first three of the five key factors cited by the WHO – tobacco use, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol – are not obviously linked to global ecological problems.

But the remaining two – unhealthy diets and air pollution – are very much related to global ecological problems. I have addressed air pollution above, while I noted in last week’s column that our agricultural system and the highly animal-based, highly processed diet it is increasingly designed to produce is not only bad for our health, it is also a major contributor to several global environmental problems. These include greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, pollution, water depletion and loss of habitat and biodiversity.

Fragile and vulnerable settings are number four on WHO’s list of the top ten global health threats: “More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises . . . and weak health services leave them without access to basic care”. These places are made vulnerable by “a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict and population displacement”.

Many of these challenges are in part or in whole due to climate change, which is only going to get worse. Drought and floods – both caused or exacerbated by climate change – lead to displacement and famine, while rising sea levels, rising temperatures and increasing severe weather events will result in increasing numbers of eco-refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that every year since 2008 there has been “an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects these numbers to increase throughout the 21st century.

The fifth threat identified by WHO is antimicrobial resistance, which “threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections”. Among the factors contributing to this problem, WHO notes, is the overuse of antimicrobials not only “in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production”; again, we see our animal-based diet and agricultural system is a problem.

Finally, ninth on the list is dengue fever, an unpleasant and occasionally fatal infection spread by mosquitoes. Climate change is increasing the distribution of these mosquitoes, which WHO reports are “spreading to less tropical and more temperate countries”.

This list of threats to global health shows us that now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the links between the health of the environment and our own health. The good news is that when we protect the environment, we almost always protect our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

 

 

Many global health threats linked to global change

Many global health threats linked to global change

Dr Trevor Hancock

29 January 2019

701 words

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a report on the top ten threats to health in 2019. Strikingly, several are related to global ecological change, marking perhaps a turning point in the recognition of the health implications of the rapid and massive ecological changes we are causing.

The first threat is air pollution and climate change. The WHO reports that nine out of ten people around the world breathe polluted air every day, causing around 7 million deaths annually, mainly from heart and lung diseases and cancer. About half the deaths are due to outdoor air pollution, mainly due to emissions from industry, transport and agriculture. Indoor air pollution from heating and cooking with biomass fuels is an important factor in the other half of the deaths.

Troublingly, about 90 percent of those deaths are in middle and low-income countries, according to the 2017 report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. This is a pattern seen in most of the other major health threats facing the world today.

The major source of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, which of course is also the major cause of climate change. While the WHO estimates that climate change will contribute to about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, many see that as a considerable underestimate. Emerging evidence suggests the impact of climate change on health and society will be more serious and more rapid than we used to think.

The second major health threat is non-communicable or chronic disease – heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and the like – with “over 85% of these premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries”. The first three of the five key factors cited by the WHO – tobacco use, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol – are not obviously linked to global ecological problems.

But the remaining two – unhealthy diets and air pollution – are very much related to global ecological problems. I have addressed air pollution above, while I noted in last week’s column that our agricultural system and the highly animal-based, highly processed diet it is increasingly designed to produce is not only bad for our health, it is also a major contributor to several global environmental problems. These include greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, pollution, water depletion and loss of habitat and biodiversity.

Fragile and vulnerable settings are number four on WHO’s list of the top ten global health threats: “More than 1.6 billion people (22% of the global population) live in places where protracted crises . . . and weak health services leave them without access to basic care”. These places are made vulnerable by “a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict and population displacement”.

Many of these challenges are in part or in whole due to climate change, which is only going to get worse. Drought and floods – both caused or exacerbated by climate change – lead to displacement and famine, while rising sea levels, rising temperatures and increasing severe weather events will result in increasing numbers of eco-refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that every year since 2008 there has been “an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate or weather-related events.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects these numbers to increase throughout the 21st century.

The fifth threat identified by WHO is antimicrobial resistance, which “threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections”. Among the factors contributing to this problem, WHO notes, is the overuse of antimicrobials not only “in people, but also in animals, especially those used for food production”; again, we see our animal-based diet and agricultural system is a problem.

Finally, ninth on the list is dengue fever, an unpleasant and occasionally fatal infection spread by mosquitoes. Climate change is increasing the distribution of these mosquitoes, which WHO reports are “spreading to less tropical and more temperate countries”.

This list of threats to global health shows us that now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the links between the health of the environment and our own health. The good news is that when we protect the environment, we almost always protect our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

 

 

Planning to feed a One Planet Region

Planning to feed a One Planet Region

Dr Trevor Hancock

22 January 2019

702 words

The concept of a One Planet Region is simple: We need to reduce our collective impact on the Earth so we – and others around the world – can live within the ecological and physical constraints of this one small planet we all share. But at the same time, we want to maintain a high quality of life for all, both locally and globally.

When Jennie Moore and Cora Hallsworth determined the ecological footprint of Victoria and Saanich last year they found, unsurprisingly, that we are consuming well above One Planet’s worth of ecosystem goods and services. But what may have been surprising for many is they found more than 40 percent of our footprint is related to food; this compares to the 26 percent of humanity’s overall global footprint that is related to food, according to a 2017 report from the Global Footprint Network

The extent of the impact of our global food and agriculture system on the Earth is not widely appreciated. But a 2017 study by Michael Clark and David Tilman in Environmental Research Letters notes that agricultural activities are the source of between one quarter and one third of all greenhouse gases, occupy 40 percent of Earth’s land surface and account for more than two thirds of freshwater withdrawals, as well as being a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Moreover, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2014 that 75% of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising animals and that world average meat consumption per person doubled between 1961 and 2011. But meat production is a large contributor to global warming and other environmental problems, with beef being particularly problematic. A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found beef production has a much larger impact – between 5 and 28 times as much, depending on the issue – than the average of dairy, poultry, pork and egg production.

In their study of the Victoria and Saanich footprints, Moore and Hallsworth found more than half our food footprint was due to fish, meat and eggs, and another 18 percent was due to dairy production. So reducing our local footprint means changing our diet. Happily, a 2014 UK study found a low meat diet results in only 65 percent of the emissions resulting from a high-meat diet.

Two important reports that speak to the issue of food, health and the environment have come out this month. The first is from the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Since 2015, The Lancet – one of the world’s leading medical journals – has drawn attention to the concept of planetary health, because “far-reaching changes to the Earth’s natural systems represent a growing threat to human health”. The Lancet has produced reports on the health impacts of climate change, pollution – and now, diet.

Authored by 37 leading scientists from 16 countries, the report states “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth”. Their prescription is clear: To safeguard both planetary and human health “global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent”.

The good news is that “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits”. They estimate their diet could prevent about 11 million deaths a year, globally.

Now Health Canada has issued its revised Canada Food Guide, and while not focused on the environmental benefits it concludes, on health grounds, that we should eat plenty of vegetables and fruits (about half our diet), choose whole grain foods and eat protein foods – not just lean meat, chicken, fish and eggs, but nuts and seeds, lentils, eggs, tofu, yogurt and beans.

I have noted before that a good food policy would be to follow Michael Pollan’s strictures: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. If we are to shift to a One Planet Region, we need a One Planet diet, and that means a low-animal-based and high plant-based diet. The good news is we will be healthier for it too.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019