Environmental impacts on health


Clean air, clean drinking water, an intact nature – these are prerequisites for a healthy life. Environmental problems are therefore also health problems. In addition to the social situation and the individual lifestyle, environmental stress is one of the most important factors influencing the health and life expectancy of the people. While overall pollution levels are low, air pollution and noise are the main health impacts. A large part of the population feels bothered by noise.


The skyscrapers disappear behind a grey veil, cars drive with light during the day, many people wear breathing masks: the pictures of the air pollution in Beijing in the spring of 2014 are frightening. “Airpocalypse” english-language media have christened the smog in the megacity with its approximately 16 million inhabitants, freely translated: the end of the world through air pollution. There was also heavy smog in Paris in March 2014, and in early April the authorities warned of air pollution in London.


Human health is closely linked to environmental influences. Clean air, clean drinking water, an intact nature – these are prerequisites for a healthy life. Environmental problems are therefore also health problems. More than a quarter of people in Germany believe that environmental problems are putting a heavy burden on their health. This was the result of a study by the Federal Environment Agency on environmental awareness in 2012.


What is the impact?

For methodological reasons, it is difficult to quantify the specific impact of certain environmental factors on health and the extent of the health risks. Many different factors affect health. In addition to environmental influences, they also include the individual way of life and diet. The individual environmental influences are also difficult to separate. They often differ from person to person, for example depending on where someone is most present, whether outdoors, in rooms or even in vehicles.


However, regional communities in cities and in the countryside are often affected by similar environmental influences. In addition, there are large-scale changes due to climate change or exposure to the spread of air pollutants. In order to assess and compare the resulting health burdens, statistical calculations are carried out.


In order to assess health risks for larger groups, the so-called burden of disease is often calculated. For the burden of disease, it is calculated, among other values, how many years of life of the population as a whole are lost due to a certain impairment. The calculations include data on pollution of the body, pollution of water, soil and air, and the frequency of certain diseases.


Air quality

Breathing clean air is a basic human need. At the same time, humans are responsible for a large proportion of the contaminants. Power stations, road transport, agriculture and industrial production are the main sources of pollutants in the air.


Food and water

Food and drinking water can allow microorganisms or chemicals to enter the body that cause health problems. In some regions of the world, this poses a significant risk. According to the World Health Organization, more than 4,000 children worldwide die every day as a result of diarrhea, mainly caused by contaminated drinking water and poor hygiene.


Environmental protection is health protection

Health damage caused by environmental influences is generally avoidable to the extent that it is possible to evade these influences. The prerequisites for this are that the harmful influence is known and that the individual possibilities make it possible to avoid the environmental influence. Individual precautions for food and drinking water are easy to implement; however, avoiding air pollutants is much more difficult.


At the same time, environmental pressures are socially unevenly distributed. Most studies show a tendency for people with low social status to be more burdened by negative environmental influences. In particular, they are more frequently affected by traffic-related health problems such as noise and air pollutants. This is confirmed, for example, by the data of the environmental surveys of the Federal Environment Agency.


Part of the work of health such as must therefore determine where health-relevant impacts come from. The aim is to prevent the emergence of negative influences as far as possible.