The Environment Has a Definitive Impact on People’s Health
To commemorate World Health Day, we interviewed Dr. Cristina Martínez, a pneumologist and the coordinator of the environmental area of the Spanish Respiratory and Thoracic Surgery Society (SEPAR), who explained her view on these issues.
By making the theme of this year’s campaign “Our planet, our health,” the WHO encourages commemorating World Health Day in a way that highlights these concerns. It encourages us to be aware of how our personal, economic, and political decisions affect not only the environment and the climate, but also end up affecting our well-being and individual health through the air we breathe, the water we drink, along with many other factors.
The intrinsic relationship between health and the environment
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how the climate crisis and the health crisis are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, science demonstrated the power it has to quickly find cures to diseases, but the distribution of this cure illustrated the full extent of global inequalities. The pandemic showed us how important it is to build welfare societies that are sustainable and committed to equal health access for all, both for our present-day societies and those of tomorrow.
The WHO used the day to call the world’s attention to the urgent measures that must be taken to protect the health of the planet and of humanity, and to encourage societies to show more concern for the well-being of their citizens and their environment.
Air pollution affects our health and the planet
Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. According to the WHO estimates, 7 million people die every year due to air pollution exposure.
- The theme of World Health Day 2022 is “Our planet, our health”. What are your thoughts on the relationship between people’s health and the planet’s health?
There’s a deep connection between our planet and our health, which means that people’s health and the planet’s health are closely tied. There’s no way that we can stay healthy if we’re breathing air that’s polluted or drinking water that’s not clean.
“The environment has a definitive impact on people’s health.”
- As a pneumologist, can you explain to us how pollution affects people’s respiratory health? How does the quality of the air that we breathe affect our health?
When we breathe, we take in 50 ml of air in each breath, at a rate of 15 inhalations per minute. So that means that we’re introducing a considerable amount of air into our body, and if this air contains pollutants, it has a direct effect on our health. Breathing clean air that is free of pollutants is fundamental to maintaining respiratory health and overall health in general.
- Could one make the claim that those that live in large cities are more affected than those that live in rural areas? In your opinion, what measures could be taken to improve this situation?
Traffic in large cities is one of the biggest sources of air pollutants, so people that live in these cities are more affected by this type of pollution than people that live in rural areas where there’s little traffic. In any case, pollution knows no borders, as we were clearly able to see when the Saharan dust storm spread to the peninsula a couple of weeks ago.
- Do you think that having to wear a face mask for the last two years because of the pandemic has improved people’s health in terms of respiratory illness?
The majority of infectious respiratory illnesses, mainly those that are viral, are airborne, so they are transmitted from person to person through aerosols suspended in the air. Using face masks has made this type of transmission much more limited. And so, we can see great improvements in the rate of respiratory illness due to this decrease in transmission. Wearing face masks is a great strategy that should still be maintained once the COVID pandemic is over, as a tool to protect us from certain situations, like pollution spikes, rising rates of viral respiratory diseases, or when we find ourselves in crowded places. Using masks in these situations can help us to improve our respiratory health, especially with regards to chronic respiratory diseases.
- Last year SEPAR (the Spanish Respiratory and Thoracic Surgery Society) dedicated the SEPAR Year to improving air quality, the environment, and health. They developed different outreach and awareness-raising activities aimed at improving air quality by highlighting the risks posed by climate change and showing how important taking care of the environment is if we want to prevent respiratory disease and improve everyone’s quality of life overall. What important insights can we find from this year dedicated to the risks that climate change pose to our health?
The main contribution to our cause that the SEPAR Year made was in achieving their objectives of spreading information, reaching out, and raising awareness about how important and relevant air quality is in maintaining our overall health and our respiratory health in particular. In general, the number of climate deniers has also gone down considerably.
- What are some small ways we can improve the air that we breathe?
“We can all make small changes to change air quality for the better.”
One of the ways we can do this is by reducing the amount of pollutant caused by traffic, so this could mean using public transport, riding a bike, or taking walks- making our movement active and sustainable. This type of behavior can help to improve air quality and our health in general, as increased physical activity is closely linked to health and well-being.
- To wrap up, what would you say to those people that are alarmed by the current climate change situation?
Climate change is a part of reality that affects us all, and nobody can escape its reach. We need to become more aware of what we can do to make a difference in small ways.
We can’t wait for the worst to happen to act. As the Little Prince said, sometimes “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
MAPFRE wants to thank Dr. Martínez for her time and for doing her part to make a change, just as we’ve been doing for the past 85 years. In honor of World Health Day, we wish to remind everyone of how important it is for us to take care of our health and the environment, as our future depends on it.