THE BLOG

How The Environment Affects Your Health

12/08/2010 08:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It has been a banner week for biomedical news. The Institute of Medicine released a provocative and somewhat controversial report on calcium and vitamin D intake; the American Cancer Society announced results of an enormous study reaffirming the link between body mass index and mortality; there was at least aleatory passage of a historic food safety bill in Congress; and a long awaited update to federal policy governing child nutrition was passed and awaits the President's signature.

Ordinarily, this content would populate my public health reflections to their far horizon. But seen from just a bit of altitude; viewed through a wider angle lens than my habitual routine accords -- these headlines announce modest news about modest measures related to our singularly immodest perspective on our own health. There is far more to health than is generally dreamed of within the purview of biomedicine.

I know, because my horizons have been widened. This past week I was privileged to join an illustrious group, convened by the Wildlife Conservation Society at their headquarters on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, to address the contention that there is only one health. The "one health" concept stipulates, essentially, that the health of people will be promoted along with the health of the planet, its diverse ecosystems, and its biodiversity, or it won't be promoted at all.

What made the group illustrious? Aside from the fact that virtually everyone in the assemblage, with the exception of me, has a career devoted to protecting the native magnificence of our planet, the group was noteworthy for every aspect of its pedigree. Outstanding work, outstanding achievement, extraordinary devotion. Intelligence, passion, eloquence, fortitude, resourcefulness. Participants represented premier organizations, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, to Conservation International, to the Nature Conservancy, to World Wildlife Fund, to Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, and in the case of my modest contributions, Yale University.

What was I doing there? Ah, there's the rub! Alas, this group -- to which I should simply be sending accolades -- has ostensible need of me.

The scientists at the meeting -- many of whom have spent arduous years in some of the planet's most dazzling, important, fragile and embattled ecosystems -- from the Arctic to the Amazon, from the Australian Outback to the Mongolian Steppes, from the jungles of Borneo to the jungles of Brazil, from the island of Madagascar to the islands of Fiji -- have collectively reached this fundamental conclusion: nobody really cares.

Well, I suppose that takes it a step too far. Lots of people do care about our planetary cohabitants and the places they and we call home. But not nearly enough people care, and people care not nearly enough to make the requisite differences. Not enough to stop the damage. The places and their denizens are ever more imperiled as we collectively squander every successive opportunity to rectify the trajectory of our impacts.

So the conservationists and wildlife biologists have conceded that the only way to make the case for what they do is through the lens of public health, and that's where I -- and others like me -- come in. We, from the human health community, are being asked to draw up chairs at the big table -- the "let's save the planet" table and help elucidate how saving oceans and lakes, mountains and jungles -- will help save people.

More specifically, the enterprise incubated at the meeting I attended involves the generation of specific, collaborative research projects to show the costs to human health of ecosystem-degradation-as-usual: the costs to human health of burning down rain forests; the costs to human health of cyanide fishing of coral reefs; the costs to human health of disrupting traditional food sources; the costs to human health of increased CO2 in our atmosphere.

We gathered secure in the conviction that there are such costs, that they can be measured, and that they are high. But that they need to be on the marquee is sad testimony to our world view. The global human population does not, apparently, acknowledge intrinsic value in the status of the globe. My conservation colleagues' unfortunate need of me is predicated on the sad inability of our species to see intrinsic value in any other species.

Environmental scientists can readily show on their own the cost to the rain forest of burning down the rain forest; public health counterparts are needed to help show the immediate cost to human lungs downwind of those fires. Environmental scientists can show on their own the cost to coral reefs of cyanide fishing; public health scientists are needed to help show the toll on nutritional status of coastal peoples dependent on the diversity of sea life those reefs formerly supported. Environmental scientists can show on their own the impact on biodiversity of human incursions into pristine areas; public health colleagues are needed to help demonstrate the association with emerging infectious diseases and potentially devastating outbreaks. Environmental scientists can tell us what species are being dispossessed by deforestation; public health counterparts are needed to help tally the human cases of malaria directly attributable to the enterprise.

And so I go from my routine allocation of effort to cultivating the health of humans who, in our masses, routinely abuse the planet, to offering what I can to a group trying to save the planet from those abuses. I love the people I care for, and that's why I do what I do. And what I do is important both for the immediacy of its responsiveness to human need, and its scope.

One in three American adults will have diabetes by 2050, testimony to the importance of work I and others do related to diabetes prevention. But all three of those three American adults, and their counterparts around the globe, will have need of a habitable, vital planet in 2050 and every year thereafter. So I can't help but view my invitation to the One Health table as a promotion.

For there is indeed but one health for all -- people, animals and planet -- to share. Our neglect of this imperative, our blindness to this blunt reality is at our collective peril. It is borne by either egomania, or mindlessness.

If mindlessness is our excuse, we must concede we are much like a parasite or virus that replicates at the expense of its host. And once its mindless replication toasts the host, the parasite, too, is doomed. One health, indeed. Are we that parasite, and earth the host?

If not, and sentience is our distinction, we are the more malignant for it. If we are destroying our host mindfully, there can be but one explanation: we are so ego maniacal as to think that the short term pursuit of our own profit -- however measured -- justifies the plunder of the planetary body that sustains pursuit and profit alike.

We are pillaging the planet that hosts us for short term gain. If anything ever epitomized penny-wise, pound-foolish conduct -- it is to profit in the short term at the long term expense of the source of all profit, and of life itself. Indeed, one of the objectives of the One Health initiative is to show that even in the short term, costs of environmental degradation outweigh profits; health economists were at the table to advance this agenda. In all likelihood, our plunder of the planet has established a new frontier for calamitous folly: penny-foolish and pound-foolish alike.

We have but one home. We have but one health. That we can manage to see it only through the lens of short term human impacts is testimony to the limits of our sight. But this view, too, will make the case.

Eventually the lens won't matter. Sooner, later, just in time, or tragically too late -- every view will reveal just one health, or just what's left when it's gone.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP
Director, Prevention Research Center
Yale University School of Medicine
www.davidkatzmd.com
www.turnthetidefoundation.org