18 Feb 2016 Press release Air

From Asthma to Zika: UNEP tackles links between health and environment

Skin cancer. Lung cancer. Asthma. Lead poisoning. Mercury poisoning. Malaria. Ebola. Zika. The list of health conditions that can be linked to environmental pollution and degradation is long and growing.

Speaking to a packed room of international delegates on Wednesday morning, UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner stressed that the links between health and environment are fundamental, and that international action can have a profound impact.

"The spread of Zika, just as with Ebola, has sent a strong signal to the international community that there is a need for increased attention to the linkages between environment and health," he said. "There is a growing awareness that humans, through their intervention in the environment, play a vital role in exacerbating or mitigating health risks."

Mr. Steiner was addressing UNEP's Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR), a group of 300 delegates representing over 140 countries and major groups. The CPR is meeting at UNEP's Nairobi headquarters this week to prepare for the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, which will convene at the end of May.

In his remarks, Steiner cited data from the World Health Organization (WHO), which has found that 23 per cent of all premature deaths around the world can be attributed to environmental factors. Among children, that figure rises to 36 per cent.

"Every year, nearly 7 million people die because they are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution, from power generation, cookstoves, transportation, industrial furnaces, wildfires, or other causes," Steiner said.

"We are eating into an ecological infrastructure that not only sustains us, but protects us. The fallout from the footprint of human activity in the 21st century seems to grow every year."

Mr. Steiner also pointed out that more than 2 billion people live in water-stressed areas, 1,000 children die every day from water-borne diseases, and 42 million life years are lost every year due to natural disasters.

There is strong evidence that international action to protect the environment can have strong, positive impacts on human health. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, which took effect in 1989, nearly 100 substances that deplete the ozone layer have been removed from circulation. Because of that progress, some 2 million cases of skin cancer will be prevented before 2030. And the removal of lead from fuel is already preventing over 1 million premature deaths each year.

UNEP - in partnership with the World Health Organization, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and the Montreal Protocol - is preparing a report entitled Healthy Environment, Healthy People that will explore how the environment impacts human health. The report will be launched at UNEA, where it will be the subject of a discussion among ministers on the implementation of the environmental dimension of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Agenda and its 17 goals were adopted in September by 193 Member States, and lay out a pathway for sustainable development. The goals integrate the social, economic and environmental concerns of development.

A healthy environment presents opportunities for a healthier society, and it brings economic benefits as well. The phase out of ozone-depleting CFCs should result in a cumulative $1.8 trillion in global health benefits by 2060. Eliminating lead in gasoline on a global scale will boost global GDP by an estimated 4 per cent. And the return on investment in water and sanitation services is between $5 and $28 per dollar invested.