Does environmental protection also mean improved health?

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Health arguments are often used to support environmental protection, because people consider health issues the most important issues as far as they are concerned. They do not necessarily appreciate risks to seals or eagles, if their own benefits or convenience will suffer as a consequence. Quite often the benefits for environmental protection run in parallel with human interests, but this is not invariably the case. In order to cope with conflicts of interest and to run things smoothly it is wise to acknowledge this simple fact of life. Even good aims cannot (and should not) be achieved by using false or imaginary arguments.

Cold chains

One typical example is a refrigerator. As far as the environment is concerned, the refrigerator is purely detrimental. However, it is one of the most important inventions in the world for benefiting human health. Cold storage of food from field to fork has made it possible to safely use fresh milk, meat and fish. Without refrigeration, consumption of milk and many milk products would be impossible for most members of our present society, where the distance from the producer to the customer may be hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Many traditional meat products such as German or Polish sausages were developed because they enabled long storage also in the past. They are still good delicacies, but if eaten every day as the main meat supply they would be quite harmful because of their high contents of fat, salt and foreign chemicals from smoking. In addition, herring and many other fish were heavily salted in the past, tasty perhaps, but terrible for their effects on blood pressure.

The refrigerator has contributed so much to protecting health by improving the storage of easily deteriorating foods, it has diminished the risk of microbial food poisonings, and cancer caused by fungal toxins, and meant that we do not need to consume so much salt and thus risk elevating our blood pressure and run the consequent risk of cardiovascular diseases. Cold storage also makes it possible to consume vegetables and fruit all year round. This provides a continuous supply of vitamin C and other vitamins.

However, in environmental terms, a refrigerator is a very harmful machine. It consumes energy, according to the second law of thermodynamics, temperature differences tend to equilibrate, and thus energy is needed to maintain a temperature difference. Second, to create a temperature difference, persistent chemicals are needed which evaporate at suitable temperatures and cool down their environment. Then they can be returned to a liquid state again by the compressor. Chlorofluorocarbons or “freons” were used for this purpose for many decades. These are stable and non-toxic chemicals, but they destroy the ozone layer in the stratosphere when they are released.

Ozone again is important in protecting us and the surface of the globe from excessive ultraviolet light. Therefore the use of refrigerators and freezers can cause many environmental problems, and finding a reasonable and balanced solution to this dilemma requires both technical development and administrative regulations. Furthermore, one cannot state with certainty that the new chemicals replacing freons will be completely safe for the environment.


Another example of a clear conflict of interests between environmental and health benefits is DDT, an insecticide with a terrible reputation. Its inventor, the Swiss chemist Paul Müller, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948 for his discovery, because this relatively non-toxic substance was able to control insects responsible for huge economic losses and enormous health effects. If one only thinks of malaria control by DDT, it has been estimated that DDT may have saved millions of people from suffering this debilitating and often deadly disease (about 300 to 500 million people suffer from malaria every year). DDT made it possible to stop typhus epidemics during the Second World War, because it helped to kill the microbe-carrying lice.

Unfortunately the use of DDT and some other insecticides was allowed to get completely out of control, perhaps partly due to the fact that DDT was so non-toxic to humans. It was used indiscriminately both on humans themselves (e.g. to kill lice) and on plants and fields. Hence this very persistent substance was soon found everywhere in nature. The first decisive blow against these compounds came with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962.

The vivid account of Carson, a naturalist, predicted that all living creatures will be silenced when the poisons gradually destroy all other animals which prey against the insects being poisoned with DDT. The book was clearly intended to create a public outcry, but it is somewhat problematic that it has been taken as scientific-based fact. Its real contribution was to initiate scientific studies. Carson herself was a critical researcher of nature, and would probably be horrified by some of the extreme standpoints taken by environmental radicals based on an uncritical reading of her book.

A similar logic prevails for pesticides and drugs. Properly used, they are important and save lives, but indiscriminate use causes more harm than good. Therefore the use of drugs has been tightly controlled in all advanced societies, and those drugs requiring proper professional knowledge to ensure that they are used safely, have been restricted to professional use. Even well-trained professionals have sometimes to be reminded of the problems of indiscriminate use, excessive use of antibiotics leading to the development of resistant bacterial strains. A similar culture of restricting pesticide use is also necessary to maintain their clear benefits and to keep any harm within limits.

With respect to DDT, this means that it is still useful for restricted purposes. It is very non-toxic to humans (contrary to common beliefs), and the high concentrations in the environment caused by indiscriminate use in 1950s to 1960s have already decreased to tolerable levels. At this point, one must ask, is it ethically justifiable to deny its use for malaria control, since malaria is responsible for hundreds of millions of disease incidents and an enormous number of deaths.

Health and environmental arguments are sometimes clearly in conflict, and just as in any human relationship we need a thorough dialogue and be willing to make sensible compromises rather than permitting one partner to disregard the other’s legitimate interests.

The aims of environmental protection and health protections often run in parallel, but this is not always the case. In these dilemma-situations, open-minded professional attitudes are needed to seek a compromise, guaranteeing reasonable protection to nature but also protecting human health.

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