Our environment, our health, our wellbeing
As we face a new year and resolve to, in our own ways, live better, healthier lives it is a good time to remind ourselves of the inextricable link between our environment and our health and well-being.
As outlined in the 2016 report The State of Ireland’s Environment, the overall state of Ireland’s environment is good when compared to our European counterparts. However, there remain specific areas in which we must improve in order to secure a safe and beneficial environment.
In fact, Ireland’s environment is a fundamental and high-quality national asset that provides a strong foundation for healthy and contented lives. There are many ways in which the environment’s condition can affect our health and well-being, but at the most fundamental level our health depends on clean air, safe drinking water and healthy food. The quality of each one of these is directly influenced by the quality of the environment. It follows that preventing damage to the environment arising from human activities also helps to protect our health and wellbeing.
“We benefit much more from clean air, pure water, good food and exercise and strong communities than we do from hospitals, medicines and clinics.” Professor Martin Cormican, NUI Galway.
Protecting the environment is not only crucial to preserve the health and well-being of future generations but it is also important to ensure continued economic success. Our environment is the bedrock of everything that we value in Ireland and therefore, we must take responsibility – at national, community and individual levels to ensure that it is protected from negative influences.
Often the terms “green spaces” and “blue spaces” are used to describe those parts of our environment that include natural and semi-natural features. “Green spaces” include farmlands, parks and forests. “Blue spaces” include rivers, canals, lakes and coastlines. There are significant health benefits associated with spending time in nature and these Green and Blue spaces need to be accessible as well as maintained in the right way.
Apart from the tangible physical health benefits associated with spending time in nature, there are also proven benefits to our mental well-being. The concept of “green and blue prescriptions” has been explored as a tool to improve community health and wellbeing. In 2012, a trial of “green prescriptions” (formal instruction from a health professional to spend more time in nature) was conducted and found to reduce obesity and to improve physical and mental health in nine trial groups across rural and urban communities around Donegal. The participants reported improvement in mental wellbeing.
The Environmental Protection Agency works at a national level to help to steer policy, provide impetus, direction, analysis and awareness on the issues that affect the environment. However, environmental protection requires a joined-up thinking approach and for that, community involvement is paramount. A vibrant, inclusive and engaged community yields better health and environmental outcomes for all the residents, businesses, schools, etc. within it, i.e. outcomes are more sustainable.
Sustainability in local communities is a key objective of the recently introduced Public Participation Networks (PPNs), which aim to enhance public engagement in decision making and policymaking. PPNs are now established in every county and city across Ireland, based on three pillars: environment, social inclusion, and community and voluntary.
Ireland’s own national strategy for sustainability, Our Sustainable Future, sets out sustainability challenges and how we might address them in order to ensure that our quality of life and general wellbeing can be improved and sustained in the decades to come.
The EPA’s latest report on air quality, shows that burning of solid fuel is the biggest threat to good air quality in Ireland, followed by emissions from vehicle exhausts. The levels of particulate matter in our air is of growing concern, especially during the winter months when people’s fuel choices can directly impact on our air quality and on our health, particularly in small towns and villages. The predominant source of fine particulate matter is from the burning of solid fuel. Also, in urban areas, we face potential exceedances of nitrogen dioxide limit values unless we reduce our dependence on cars.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) reports that 1,500 premature deaths in Ireland every year can be attributed to particulate matter exposure.
Climate change is real and the effects of it are already upon us, we must therefore advance with initiatives that reduce carbon emissions without delay. Ireland is still over-reliant on fossil fuels which provide 91% of Ireland’s energy. Ireland has the third highest emissions per capita for residential energy use in the EU, reflecting high dependence on oil, coal and peat. Ireland’s energy systems will need to undergo a major transformation as part of actions to address and limit climate change and if Ireland is to meet both its EU targets and its objective of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050.
Major investment is needed in Ireland’s water treatment infrastructure to ensure the continued safe supply of drinking water. More needs to be done also, to ensure that the 180,000 households that have their own private well are aware of the risks to their health from a change in their water quality. Protecting our water supply also means protecting our rivers, lakes and surrounding seas and coastal regions. We must do a lot more and work much harder at protecting this vital national asset. Improvements needed include stopping the unwelcome decline in the number of our pristine rivers - only 21 sites achieved the highest quality rating from 2013-2015 compared to over 500 sites in the late 1980s. Ireland’s marine environment has remained relatively unpolluted; however, the level of environmental stress both from internal and external sources has increased in recent years. Marine litter is now a global issue and the impact can be seen on even the most remote of our beaches.
Noise pollution, odour and litter
Local authorities receive over 60,000 environmental complaints each year from the public. The majority of these relate to nuisance, litter and waste-related issues. Even mild cases of noise, odour or litter pollution can impact negatively on a community’s well-being over time. The EPA also receives a significant number of complaints about odours emanating from industrial activities, in particular waste management, food and drink facilities.
Radon – a naturally occurring radioactive gas – is a risk to human health. Some of our citizens are living in houses that may impact their health because of the presence of radon, although they are not aware of it. Radon gas is a naturally occurring radioactive gas formed in the ground by the radioactive decay of uranium which is present in varying quantities in all rocks and soils. It has no taste and no smell. As many as 250 cases of lung cancer every year in Ireland can be linked to radon.
Further information is available at www.epa.ie/radon/
Environment and Health – Inextricably Linked
We need to remind ourselves that our health and wellbeing are supported by a clean and well protected environment. A clean and well-protected environment is a key building block to a healthy Ireland. Clean air and water are not luxury items but basic needs, and should be treated as valuable assets that need to be protected to benefit our health and also the wider economy. The state of the environment can influence our health in positive terms (e.g. amenity) but also in negative terms, because of the risks to health posed by pollution. Ireland’s environment is generally good, and on the whole Ireland does present a clean, safe environment to live in. The availability of green spaces (parks, woods, countryside) and blue spaces (ponds, river banks, lakeshores and seashores), along with clean, fresh air and breath-taking landscapes, provides an enviable resource which should be valued and enjoyed. In addition to the beneficial effects of being active in these spaces, scientists have also linked exposure to nature to benefits in coping with mental stress and fatigue. For more information on environment and wellbeing, click here.