Why does environment, health and pollution matter? | UNEP

Why does environment, health and pollution matter? | UNEP

Through the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, we are intimately connected to nature, and in turn exposed to a cocktail of chemicals and materials. These are having a range of effects on our health. 

Water, air and soil pollution can cause significant adverse health outcomes in humans, wild and domestic animals and plants. Environmental contamination is an important factor in many non-infectious diseases, including cancer and respiratory illness. Biological and chemical pollutants enhance the development and spread of antimicrobial-resistant genes in the environment. 

In addition to air pollution of the indoor or outdoor environment by chemicals, freshwater and ocean, pollution leads to the accumulation of toxic chemicals, heavy metals (such as mercury, lead and cadmium), and microplastics in the human food chain, causing adverse health outcomes in humans and domestic and wild animals.

Unintentional poisonings, mainly arising from excessive exposure to and inappropriate use of toxic chemicals, including pesticides present in occupational and/or domestic environments, are heavily affecting human health, particularly in low-income countries. 

The World Health Organization estimated that in 2012, 23% of all deaths worldwide, amounting to 12.6 million people, were due to environmental causes; with 90% occurring in low to middle income countries.

Pollution and the unsound management of chemicals and waste, together with environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, and climate change are intertwined planetary crises with negative impacts on the health of both humans and animals.

Environmental degradation generates direct health hazards, such as extreme weather and floods. It is a key factor in non-communicable diseases, and it contributes to infectious diseases and other adverse effects at the interface of animal, human and ecosystem health. The impacts of environmental degradation on the health and well-being of humans and animals are compounded by the climate crisis, which can act as a multiplier of these threats, exacerbating their impact while also undermining the resilience of environmental and ecological systems through complex processes.  

Pollution can have a particularly disproportionate and negative effect on the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, including women and children.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) faces a complex challenge in addressing the interrelated issues of environment, pollution and health. To address these challenges, UNEP focuses on promoting sustainable development practices that balance the needs of economic growth, social development, and environmental protection. This includes developing policies and programs to reduce pollution, conserve biodiversity, and promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Using the One Health approach, which recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and interdependent, is needed to address these challenges.

In 2019, UNEA-4 welcomed the implementation plan Towards a Pollution-Free Planet. The Plan follows UNEA-3 Ministerial Declaration first call for action to tackle pollution globally. The Plan addresses key gaps across all pollution issues and brings the pollution-free planet agenda more strongly centre-stage globally.

Pollution Focus Area

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