|WIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 08, No. 3 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1996, 16 pages)|
Keynote Address by Honorable Dato' Mohd Farid Ariffin, Deputy Minister of Health of Malaysia, at the Third Conference on Health and Environment: Global Partners for Global Solutions, United Nations, New York, April 15, 1994.
Human beings are entitled to a healthy and productive life and should be able to live in harmony with nature. This calls for proper linkage of health aspects and environmental health protection - an emerging subject of intense debate and discussion at local, national and international forums.
The causes of environmental degradation are numerous. Activities in the name of development, aimed to elevate the quality of life, have resulted in the deterioration of the very resources that are needed for sustaining life, such as food, water, air and soil. Rapid population growth and increasing poverty, two major factors affecting environment, development, and health in the world are exerting heavy pressures on natural resources and the capacity of natural ecosystems to support human activity. It must be realized that the capacity of the natural environments is limited and this fact cannot be ignored if the goal is to enhance and improve the health and well being of world citizens. It must also be realized that health is closely related to development and the environment. However in many parts of the world, very little attention is paid to health aspects when environment and development are considered.
The warning bells have been sounded from as far back as 1913 when arsenic poisoning was reported in Argentina to as recent as the deaths in South Africa caused by drowning in toxic sludge.
In developing countries, the major environmental health concerns are still those environmental factors contributing to the spread of infectious diseases, all of which require provision of safe water, basic sanitation, adequate shelter, availability of food and handling practices, controlling disease vectors and agricultural hazards.
The actions of the past are irreversible and the release of more than three and a half billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, as estimated by the Untied States Environmental Protection Agency, has resulted in various adverse health impacts. Two-thirds of cancers for example, have been attributed to environmental problems which could have been prevented. Other adverse health impacts are seen in the damage to the developing nervous system of children from lead contamination, decreased male sterility from debromochloropropane as well as the largest cholera epidemic ever recorded which occurred in Peru in 1991.
Without a comprehensive and coordinated approach to environmental health protection, it will be impossible to properly balance the risks and the resources needed to address the taking of risks. The most critical environmental problem of today and in the future is and will be how we identify risks, assess these risks, define them, thoroughly understand these risks, prioritize them and communicate these risks to all citizens. In doing so it becomes very critical also on how we handle the gap between scientific and public perception of environmental health risks.
Environmental health impact assessments should specifically report and comment on potential effects on human health rather than just providing data on point source emissions and ambient levels of pollutants. This then calls for the development of indicators of community health which can be derived from public health surveillance activities or pollution incidents and epidemiologic studies of disease clusters, which should all be integrated into a national environmental health database. Public health authorities could play a major role in constantly developing indicators of environmental health and refining these indicators to improve the predictive availability of health impact assessments where such indicators are used.
It is important to maintain as a principle, that environmental health impact assessment is not considered a parallel process but rather an integral part of the environmental impact assessment process. This can be achieved through legislation which requires health impacts to be addressed explicitly in EIAs, development of health impact guidelines, development of avenues for access to health expertise and community input at different stages of the EIA process and the clarification of roles between agencies.
As any other developing country, Malaysia has to balance its development priorities against effective environmental and health management. The impact of environmental measures on national economy will have to be considered along with the implications of affecting foreign investment as against a well regulated environment.
Nevertheless, in achieving this economic growth, Malaysia recognizes that the well-being of the people cannot be ignored or compromised since their health is fundamental to a nation's development and progress. Also, recognizing the fact that the health of the people is inextricably linked to a sound environment, Malaysia strives to strike a balance between economic growth and sustainable development.
Malaysia is also taking steps to be a party to the Basel Convention and currently observes and complies with the recommended guidelines on toxic and hazardous waste. Steps are also being taken to plan and design permanent treatment and disposal sites for toxic and hazardous waste derived from electronic industries, metal electroplating industries and other industries related to chemicals, rubber, plastics, printing, packaging, tanneries and pharmaceuticals.
While Malaysia promotes cooperation, involvement and consultation with various groups including NGO's, a legislative framework has been set in place in order to achieve the goals of sustainable development principal among these is the Environmental Quality Act of 1974 amended in 1985, and its 17 subsidiary regulations which collectively aim to prevent, abate and control pollution. The Environmental Impact Assessment Order of 1987 requires EIA studies to be conducted for any proposed development falling under the definition of prescribed activities, and this very move has set in motion awareness in preventing and mitigating environmental problems. This is holistic legislation to ensure that there are adequate and effective environmental consideration during planning of development activities and projects. Nineteen categories of development activities require that EIA reports to be submitted. These include agriculture land reclamation, housing, industry, infrastructure, waste treatment and disposal and water supply. The EIA order is a legislative procedure for approving, or rejecting the report about the project, not the project itself. It acts as a mechanism for improving planning of redevelopment projects, determining when effects are unacceptable and deciding methods for avoiding some effects and mitigating the remainder.
Apart from these, Malaysia has geared itself towards the improvement of environmental health as is evidenced by the incentives announced in the 1994 budget which among other things, provide for tax exemptions for investment in timber plantations, catalytic converters and other pollution control equipment as well as the 2.7 per cent reduction in the price of unleaded fuel. An extensive health care system is in place which not only provides basic health care services and promotion of hygienic practices among the rural population but is able to control, prevent and treat tropical diseases as well as disease of modern living such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Eighty-nine per cent of Malaysians will have access to piped, treated public water by 1996. In 1988, a national action plan was developed for municipal solid waste management which identified the scope for combining recycling, incineration and sanitary landfilling coupled with efficient collection systems as important components for improving cleanliness in the urban areas. Currently the privatization of solid waste management services is being implemented which will then provide extensive and efficient waste management services throughout the country.
In pursuit of implementing Agenda 21, three functions are seen as necessary: capacity building to provide the human resource and the skills, technology transfer to provide the facilities and techniques and the financial resources to support sustainable development and promote environmental health. Since environmental health issues are multi-sectorial and transboundary in nature, international partnerships and commitments in terms of adequate financing, appropriate trade conditions and technology transfer become essential.
In the partnerships that are developed, it must be borne in mind that the poorer developing countries face a more difficult challenge wherein they have to combat both the traditional health problems of diarrhoeal diseases, vector-borne diseases and parasitic infections as well as the emerging environmental health problems resulting from development. Thus the standard for environmental health must be realistic so as not to preclude resources essential for addressing more pressing problems.
It must also be borne in mind that developing countries need to continually strive for development. The challenge they face is that it cannot be done at the expense of the environment. In addition, a large number for developing countries are not equipped and prepared to integrate health into their development planning or even to deal with the most pressing environmental problems confronting them.
Standards must be set in the spirit of global partnership to solve global problems such as global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain which cannot be solved singularly by anyone nation. There must be recognition of shared, albeit differentiated responsibilities among all nations and a strong commitment towards sustainable development for the benefit of all peoples today and tomorrow.
This sense of responsibility and commitment may perhaps be strengthened by remembering that "the world was not bequeathed to us by our parents but rather entrusted to us by our children."