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Your Environment. Your Health.

Global Environmental Health and Sustainable Development


woman sitting by outdoor cook stove

Environmental Factors and the Burden of Disease in Developing Countries

Many of the diseases that are most closely associated with poverty are related to the environment.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 25 percent of the disease burden in the developing world is due to environmental factors.
  • 1.9 million people, primarily children, died in 2004 from inadequate access to clean water and sanitation.
  • 2 million people, mostly women and children, die each year from exposure to indoor air pollution from cooking with solid fuels such as wood, dung, and charcoal.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory conditions, are of growing importance in low- and middle-income countries. Many NCDs can be caused or worsened by environmental hazards, such as air pollution, toxic chemicals, and built environments that discourage physical activity. NCDs can impair economic development by pushing people into poverty, due to lost productivity and the costs of long-term therapy. In low- and middle-income countries, where people frequently pay out-of-pocket for healthcare and where healthcare systems have limited resources and capacity, NCDs take a large human and economic toll.

  • 80 percent of all deaths due to NCDs occur in the developing world.
  • People in the developing world die from NCDs at a younger age than people in the developed world. -29 percent of all deaths from NCDs occur in individuals under the age of 60 in low- and middle-income countries.

A healthy population is essential for economic development. The poorest people on the planet tend to suffer most from the health effects from exposures to environmental hazards like air pollution and impure water. In turn, disease and disability related to polluted environments slows and blocks economic development. In addition to its toll on human suffering, illness carries a significant financial burden in the form of healthcare expenditures and lost productivity. For example, unhealthy children often cannot attend or perform well in school, and unhealthy adults cannot work or care for their families.

How does economic development affect environmental health?

Economic development has led to tremendous improvements in people’s well-being, but often at the expense of the environment. Industrialization has contributed to pollution of air and water, changing dietary patterns, and shifting patterns of transportation and land use. Exposures to air and water pollutants directly increase disease. Similarly, dietary changes and decreased levels of physical activity, resulting from transportation and other work and lifestyle changes, are contributing to global epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and associated diseases. Globalization and the large geographic scale over which rapid industrialization is occurring make these environmental health problems global health problems.

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development is frequently defined as development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As evidence of the harm to health and well-being from widespread environmental degradation and global climate change grows, communities and governments are placing greater emphasis on assuring that economic development is achieved in a sustainable way.

How can environmental health be integrated into sustainable development?

Protecting and creating healthy environments is a critical component of sustainable development. Environmental health can be integrated into sustainable development by:

  • Improving environmental quality for the poorest populations with the greatest burden of environmental diseases, by reducing exposures to air pollution in homes and villages from biomass burning, and providing clean water and sanitation
  • Identifying efforts to address environmental problems that can also provide health benefits. For example, creating environments that encourage biking and walking for transportation reduces greenhouse gas and toxic air pollution emissions (environmental benefit) and increases physical activity (health benefit).
  • Recognizing that some policies, practices, and technologies designed to promote sustainability and economic development may have unintended adverse environmental health effects, and attempting to prevent or mitigate these before they are implemented.

What is NIEHS Doing?

Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment

Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment

Climate change is affecting the health of Americans1. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health will grow, exacerbating existing health threats and creating new public health challenges. This assessment significantly advances what we know about the impacts of climate change on public health, and the confidence with which we know it. While all Americans will be affected by climate change, the report recognizes populations of concern, such as children, the elderly, outdoor workers, and those living in disadvantaged communities, who are disproportionately vulnerable.

Read the full report online
Video: Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment

NIEHS Research Efforts

  • Climate Change and Human Health - The major public health organizations of the world have said that climate change is a critical public health problem.
  • Global Environmental Health - Research, education, training, and research translation directed at health problems that are related to environmental exposures and transcend national boundaries, with a goal of improving health for all people by reducing the environmental exposures that lead to avoidable disease, disabilities and deaths.
  • Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves - The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a public-private partnership to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. The goal of the Alliance, which is sponsored by the United Nations Foundation, several U.S. government agencies, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), and other partners, is "100 by 20": a call for 100 million homes in the developing world to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020, with a long-term vision of universal adoption of clean and efficient cooking solutions.

Further Reading

Additional Resources

Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal

NIEHS' knowledge management tool for locating the most relevant scientific literature on the health implications of climate change.

Explore the Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal
  • Climate Change and Human Health - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers climate change to be one of the top public health challenges of our time. Our mission to protect the health and well-being of people in the United States depends on healthy and sustainable environments.
  • Environmental Wellness Toolkit - What surrounds you each day in your home, work, or neighborhood and the resources available to you can affect your health. You can’t always choose what’s in the environments you live, work, or play in. But taking small steps to make your environments safer and limiting your exposure to potentially harmful substances can help keep you healthier.
  • Health and Climate Change - Managing the effects of climate change: The UCL Lancet Commission 2009 & 2007
  • Public Health and Environment. Global Health Observatory (GHO) data, World Health Organization, Geneva.

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