Environmental diseases can be directly attributed to unhealthy, adverse environmental factors. Such factors include exposure to toxic chemicals, radiation, air pollution, water contamination and inadequate sanitation.
In a report1 published in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO), it was estimated that over 12 million people die every year as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment. Air pollution was identified as the number one reason why.
Types of Environmental Diseases
In past reports, it has been stated that there are more than 100 types of diseases and injuries that can be attributed to environmental factors1. These types of diseases and injuries are commonly characterized as:
- Infection and parasitic diseases
- Neonatal and nutritional conditions
- Unintentional injuries
- Intentional injuries
- Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)
NCDs (notably heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases) are among the most prominent environmental diseases and are subsequently among the leading causes of death.
Heart disease is any condition that affects the structure of the heart. There are several different types, with the more prominent ones being:
- Coronary artery and vascular disease
- Structural heart disease
- Heart failure
Lifestyle factors (such as diet and lack of exercise) and medical conditions (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol) are well-known causes of heart disease, and so too is the environment. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, and chemicals used in the workplace and home all play a role in causing heart disease.
Cancer is a disease in which groups of cells grow, divide and spread invasively throughout the body. Sometimes this occurs as a result of environmental factors or agents, including radiation (e.g., ultraviolet rays from the sun), alcohol, cigarette smoke, chemicals in food, and air pollution.
There are many substances that are among the most likely carcinogens to affect human health, including:
- Benzene (a natural component of crude oil and a known cause of leukemia)
- Radon (a natural radioactive gas, associated with lung cancer)
- Soot (a byproduct of the burning of carbon-containing materials like wood and plastics, associated with skin, lung, esophageal and bladder cancers)
- Asbestos (a fibrous, heat-resistant material used in products such as insulation and automotive brakes, associated with mesothelioma as well as lung and larynx cancers)
Chronic Respiratory Diseases
Chronic respiratory diseases (CRDs) are diseases affecting the airways and other areas of the lung. The more prevalent types of lung disease include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema and lung cancer.
Some of the more common environmental causes of respiratory diseases include tobacco use, indoor air pollution, outdoor air pollution, allergens and occupational agents.
Maintaining Healthy Environments
It will take a collective, worldwide effort to reduce the impact that the environment has on health and disease. And with over 20% of global deaths linked to environmental factors1, there is a lot of work to be done.
Governments around the world continue to implement targeted strategies and intervention tactics to improve the environment and, ultimately, prevent diseases. Such interventions include:
- Increasing access to low-carbon energy technologies
- Reducing the dependence on solid fuels for cooking
- Enacting tobacco smoke-free legislation
- Improving water supply, water quality and access to sanitation
- Banning the use of asbestos
- Phasing out carcinogenic substances in the workplace
- Prüss-Üstün, Annette, Jennyfer Wolf, Carlos Corvalán, Robert Bos, and Maria Neira. Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks. World Health Organization, 2016.