Large-scale and global environmental hazards to human health include climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, changes in ecosystems due to loss of biodiversity, changes in hydrological systems and the supplies of freshwater, land degradation, urbanization, and stresses on food-producing systems.
Appreciation of this scale and type of influence on human health requires a new perspective which focuses on ecosystems and on the recognition that the foundations of long-term good health in populations rely in great part on the continued stability and functioning of the biosphere's life-supporting systems. It also brings an appreciation of the complexity of the systems upon which we depend.
Protecting health from global environmental change requires management at many levels, from the social and economic drivers of environmental change, to the resulting hazards and exposures for human populations. WHO supports this linkage of environmental and health agendas, for example by providing health expertise into the UN Conventions on Climate Change, Biological Diversity and Desertification, and by advising the health sector on the necessary responses to address the health risks posed by large-scale environmental change.
Stratospheric ozone depletion, UV radiation and health
It has been recognized for several decades that the release of chlorofluorocarbons and other atmospheric pollutants depletes stratospheric ozone, which in turn increases human exposure to ultraviolet radiation, causing skin cancer and cataracts.
The recognition of direct effects on human health effects was a major stimulus to the Montreal Protocol, which acts to reduce emissions of pollutants that weaken the ozone layer. Although this international agreement is proving highly effective in reducing risks in the long term, UV radiation remains a health hazard.
The World Health Organization, and partner organizations - through the Intersun project - have developed and promote the UV Index, a tool to inform and educate the public about sun protection.
The term ecosystem refers to the combined physical and biological components of an environment. These organisms form complex sets of relationships and function as a unit as they interact with their physical environment.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report
Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. Ecosystem services are indispensable to the wellbeing of all people, everywhere in the world. They include provisioning, regulating, and cultural services that directly affect people, and supporting services needed to maintain the other services. From the availability of adequate food and water, to disease regulation of vectors, pests, and pathogens, human health and well-being depends on these services and conditions from the natural environment. Biodiversity underlies all ecosystem services.
The causal links between environmental change and human health are complex because they are often indirect, displaced in space and time, and dependent on a number of modifying forces. Human health ultimately depends upon ecosystem products and services (such as availability of fresh water, food and fuel sources) which are requisite for good human health and productive livelihoods. Significant direct human health impacts can occur if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause political conflict. The resultant impacts on economic and physical security, freedom, choice and social relations have wide-ranging impacts on well-being and health, and the availability and access to health services and medicines.
Human interventions are altering the capacity of ecosystems to provide their goods (e.g. freshwater, food, pharmaceutical products, etc) and services (e.g. purification of air, water, soil, sequestration of pollutants, etc).
Ecosystem disruption can impact on health in a variety of ways and through complex pathways. The types of health effects experienced are determined by the degree to which local population’s depend on ecosystem services, and factors such as poverty which affect vulnerability to changes in elements like access to food and water.
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