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The human health costs of losing natural systems: quantifying Earth’s worth to public health

Scientists urge focus on new branch of environmental health

Courtesy of Christopher Golden and WCS
Wildlife Conservation Society November 19, 2013
NEW YORKA new paper from members of the HEAL (Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) consortium delineates a new branch of environmental health that focuses on the public health risks of human-caused changes to Earth’s natural systems. Looking comprehensively at available research to date, the paper's authors highlight repeated correlations between changes in natural systems and existing and potential human health outcomes, including: 
  • Forest fires used to clear land in Indonesia generate airborne particulates that are linked to cardiopulmonary disease in downwind population centers like Singapore.
  • Risk of human exposure to Chagas disease in Panama and the Brazilian Amazon, and to Lyme disease in the United States, is positively correlated with reduced mammalian diversity.
  • In Belize, nutrient enrichment from agricultural runoff hundreds of miles upstream causes a change in the vegetation pattern of lowland wetlands that favors more efficient malaria vectors, leading to increased malaria exposure among coastal populations.
  • Human health impacts of anthropogenic climate change include exposure to heat stress, air pollution, infectious disease, respiratory allergens, and natural hazards as well as increased water scarcity, food insecurity and population displacement.
“Human activity is affecting nearly all of Earth’s natural systems—altering the planet’s land cover, rivers and oceans, climate, and the full range of complex ecological relationships and biogeochemical cycles that have long sustained life on Earth,” said Dr. Samuel Myers of the Harvard School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “Defining a new epoch, the Anthropocene, these changes and their effects put in question the ability of the planet to provide for a human population now exceeding 7 billion with an exponentially growing demand for goods and services.”
 

In their paper, the authors demonstrate the far reaching effects of this little explored and increasingly critical focus on ecological change and public health by illustrating what is known, identifying gaps for and limitations of future research efforts, addressing the scale of the global burden of disease associated with changes to natural systems, and proposing a research framework that strengthens the scientific underpinnings of both public health and environmental conservation. Such efforts should lead to a more robust understanding of the human health impacts of accelerating environmental change and inform decision-making in the land-use planning, conservation, and public health policy realms. They also point out the equity and inter-generational justice issues related to this field, as most of the burdens associated with increased degradation of natural systems will be experienced by the poor and by future generations.

Dr. Steven Osofsky, who oversees the HEAL consortium and leads the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Health programs around the world said, “Not all governments prioritize environmental stewardship, and many lack adequate resources to support public health. If we can combine forces and utilize sound science to build inter-sectoral bridges where conservation and public health interests are demonstrated to coincide, it's a win-win. On the other hand, if we don’t work together to understand the global burden of disease that’s associated with alterations in the structure and function of natural systems, we may find ourselves testing planetary boundaries in ways that are frightening and difficult to reverse.”
 
The paper, titled “Human Health Impacts of Ecosystem Alteration,” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition. To read this groundbreaking paper, click here.

Authors include Samuel S. Myers of the Harvard University School of Public Health; Lynne Gaffikin of Evaluation and Research Technologies for Health Inc. and Stanford University; Christopher D. Golden of the Harvard University Center for the Environment; Richard S. Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; Taylor H. Ricketts of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics; Will R. Turner of Conservation International; and Kent H. Redford and Steven A. Osofsky of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
 

Media contacts:
Scott Smith, 1-718-220-3698, ssmith@wcs.org
Stephen Sautner, 1-718-220 3682, ssautner@wcs.org 

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit: www.wcs.org. The HEAL (Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) website is at www.wcs-heal.org, and includes the names of the 20+ public health and environmental conservation organizations that have come together to address the globally important issues highlighted in “Human Health Impacts of Ecosystem Alteration.”
 
The overarching mission of the Harvard School of Public Health is to advance the public’s health through learning, discovery, and communication. To pursue this mission, the School produces knowledge through research, reproduces knowledge through higher education, and translates knowledge into evidence that can be communicated to the public, policy makers, and practitioners to advance the health of populations.
 
Harvard University Center for the Environment: Harnessing the intellectual power of Harvard to understand and shape our environmental future.
 
Evaluation and Research Technologies for Health (EARTH) Inc. focuses on “connecting humans, wildlife and ecosystems in health,” through strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation, research and advocacy. It also helps forge partnerships between conservation and health organizations and facilitates investigations of the contribution of ecosystems and biodiversity to human well-being.
 
The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

is a private, not-for-profit environmental research and education organization in Millbrook, N.Y. For 30 years, Cary Institute scientists have been investigating the complex interactions that govern the natural world. Their objective findings lead to more effective policy decisions and increased environmental literacy. Focal areas include air and water pollution, climate change, invasive species, and the ecological dimensions of infectious disease. Learn more at www.caryinstitute.org.

At the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, we integrate natural and social sciences to understand the interactions between people and nature and to help build a sustainable future.  We are a hub for transdisciplinary scholarship, based at the University of Vermont and comprising diverse faculty, students, and collaborators worldwide. Together we conduct research at the interface of ecological, social, and economic systems, develop creative, practical solutions to local and global environmental challenges, and provide future leaders with the tools and understanding necessary to navigate the transition to a sustainable society.
 
Conservation International

(CI) - Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area and employs more than 800 staff in 29 countries on six continents, and has nearly 1,000 partners around the world. For more information, please visit our website at www.conservation.org or visit us on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Acknowledgements
This work was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as part of the Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages (HEAL) program. Support was also received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Any opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the program's supporters.

Photo caption: On the island of Madagascar, a team of researchers from University of California, Berkeley, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that the loss of access to wildlife for sustenance can lead to nutritional deficiencies in children. The researchers are shown here taking blood samples from a child enrolled in the study to measure levels of hemoglobin. 

Related Linkhttp://www.wcs.org/press/press-releases/human-health-cost.aspx