Physical Environments

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published its “Dirty Dozen” list of produce with the highest pesticide residue. The American environmental association does so every year in the hopes that it will raise awareness about the hazardous effects of agricultural pesticide contamination and help consumers make educated decisions when purchasing fruits and vegetables. This year, it analyzed 32 000 samples tested by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and apples came out on top yet again, with 99% testing positive for at least one pesticide. In an attempt to reduce our exposure to these harmful chemicals, the EWG suggests that we buy organically grown –and likely much more costly – produce which have been shown to contain fewer pesticides. They also published a list of the “Clean Fifteen” foods least likely to hold pesticide residues, providing safer alternatives to the Dirty Dozen.

This is but a mere example of the long list of environmental contaminants that can cause adverse health effects. They are not limited to our outdoor environment – air, water and soil; they also include our indoor environment – housing, community and transportation. When our physical environment is compromised, rates of morbidity and mortality can increase dramatically:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates than 1 in 8 global deaths is attributable to air pollution exposure making it the largest single environmental health risk (WHO, 2014a). Air pollution –both indoor and outdoor – contributes to cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and lung cancer.
  • There are 780 million people worldwide who do not have access to clean water (UNICEF and WHO, 2012), resulting in more than 3.4 million deaths each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes (Prüss-Üstün A, Bos R, Gore F, Bartram J. (2008). In addition, increased water pollution creates breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which killed an estimated 627 000 people in 2012 alone (WHO, 2013).
  • A recent study published in Science suggests that changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are influenced by climate change (Siraj, A.L. et al., 2014). It argues that the warmer temperatures caused by global warming can influence the ability of malaria parasites to invade new areas. As such, the World Health Organization believes that this could also lead to greater pathogen transmission and increased human risk to a number of other vectorborne diseases , such as Lyme disease, dengue and West Nile virus, which are also climate-sensitive (WHO, 2014b).

Millions of people worldwide currently lack the basic needs such as clean water and ample food as a result of inadequate physical environments. Consequently, they become increasingly susceptible to disease driven by malnourishment and air, water and soil pollutant exposure. Many of these health concerns can be lessened or prevented entirely, whether they occur in developed or developing countries. So how do we go about minimizing the morbidity and mortality rates driven by unhealthy physical environments?

  • Be aware of the risk factors that might render you susceptible to these environmental exposures. For example, children, the elderly, individuals with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular conditions and those who participate in sports or work outdoors are more vulnerable to air pollution. Thus, you can consult the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) (a tool developed by Health Canada and Environment Canada that indicates the level of health risk from air pollution on a scale of 1 to 10) and avoid outdoor activities when air pollution is high.
  • Cleaning up the air we breathe not only prevents noncommunicable diseases, it can also curbs global warming. On a personal level, we can reduce our carbon footprint by driving less and recycling.
  • On a larger scale, governments are taking measures to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and ensuring the conservation of environmental resources that support human life. One way is through the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, from which Canada withdrew itself in December 2011. As for the remaining participating countries, they agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, when a new climate change agreement will be implemented. With the newly released National Climate Assessment Report detailing the effects of climate change on the United States, it is becoming evident that global warming is a cause for concern for all developed countries that requires immediate attention.
  • Above all, effective policy decisions are informed by scientific research. Additional studies addressing the detrimental health effects of changes in our physical environments are needed to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, federal scientists have voiced their concerns about muzzling by the Conservative government (Cheadle, 2013; Chung, 2013). A union-commissioned survey found that 50 per cent of respondents were aware of cases in which political interference with their work compromised the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability and 25 per cent were asked to exclude or alter information for “non-scientific reasons”. These efforts to silence scientists are unjust to Canadians and serve as a warning that skewing of public opinion can potentially override the need to disseminate important scientific findings.


Cheadle, B. (2013, October 21). 90% of government scientists feel they can’t speak freely: union survey. CTV News. Retrieved from

Chung, E. (2013, October 21). Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests. CBC News. Retrieved from

Prüss-Üstün A, Bos R, Gore F, Bartram J. (2008). Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health. Retrieved from

Siraj, A. S., Santos-Vega, M., Bouma, M. J., Yadeta, D., Ruiz Carrascal, D., & Pascual, M. (2014). Altitudinal changes in malaria incidence in highlands of ethiopia and colombia. Science (New York, N.Y.), 343(6175), 1154-1158. doi:10.1126/science.1244325; 10.1126/science.1244325

UNICEF and World Health Organization. (2012). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2013). World Malaria Report 2013. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2014a). Burden of disease from the joint effects of Household and Ambient Air Pollution for 2012. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2014b). Malaria, other vectorborne and parasytic diseases. Retrieved from

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Julie Boucher

Julie obtained her MSc in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the IJHS.

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