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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 11, No. 2 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1999, 16 p.)
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Point of View

PART 1 "Environmental Challenges to Health Through Key Stages of Life"

Introductory Statement by Dr. Christine K. Durbak

Chief Seattle, a great native American leader once wisely remarked that: "We are part of the web of life; and whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves." Today is Earth Day, and we are to be celebrating the web on which we travel and on which we depend.

Thanks to people like yourselves: to NGO's; to countless others around the world concerned with saving our environment; and to the various international agencies like WHO, UNEP, we have at a minimum, raised awareness and successfully initiated thousands of remediation programs to repair our tattered web.

But despite the many successful global partnerships and despite the resounding success of so many environmental remediation programs the task of saving our web...and saving ourselves...remains daunting indeed.

Those of you here who are environmental experts, physicians and health professionals are concerned about the potentially devastating and, in some cases, irreversible effects of environmental degradation on human health.

While the health of all of us depends on the cleanliness and normal functioning of our web it is the world's most vulnerable citizens...the young, the elderly and the disabled...whose health and well-being are at particular risk.

The Elderly

Health, economic and social issues of aging are inextricably linked to the development process. As the age structure of developing countries changes, demands on scarce resources by adult and elderly population can be expected to grow. The strain placed on extremely limited health care resources by infectious diseases not at conquered is compounded by growing levels of non-communicable disease and related disability and increasingly common environmental hazards. Even a brief examination of the factors underlying the process of demographic aging indicates their magnitude and complexity.

While the world's population grow at an annual rate of 1.7%, the population over 65 increases by 2.5% per year. What characterizes recent decades is the increasing rate of growth due to the rapidity of demographic transformation of many developing countries: currently around 360 million of a world total of just under 600 million persons over 60 live in the developing world. In 2025 11.9% of the elderly will live in the developing world and 23.6% in the developed world.

It's axiomatic that these surging numbers of elderly citizens are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards. For example, global warming suggests that punishing heat waves, such as the 1995 event that killed over 700 elderly people in Chicago alone, will become more common. As surface temperatures rise, major cities around the world could experience thousands of additional heat related deaths annually. Studies indicate that by 2020 global warming could cause up to a 145% rise in heat-related mortality in New York City alone! (Kalkstein, Environmental Health Perspectives #105, 1997)

The Children

Health care professionals are aware that children are more vulnerable than adults to the environment for the following reasons:

1. The rate at which children absorb nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract is faster than that of adults, a fact that can impact their exposure to toxicants.

2. Children's metabolic systems are still developing so their ability to detoxify and excrete toxins differs also from that of adults. The difference is sometimes to the child's advantage, but more frequently they are not able to excrete toxins as well as adults, and thus are more vulnerable to them.

3. Behaviors characteristic of early childhood also affect a child's exposure to toxicants. In the first year of life the young child spends hours close to the ground where he or she may be exposed to toxicants in dust, soil and carpets as well as to pesticide vapors in low-lying layers of air.

4. Normal development in early childhood includes a great deal of hand-to-mouth behavior, providing another revenue for exposure to such toxicants as lead in paint dust or chips and to pesticide residues.

Part 2 will be continued in the Fall issue of the World Ecology Report.

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