Global Economy

The global economy and global environment are bound up with one another. Environmental change is a consequence of economic development.  Environmental change and its consequent health impacts are driven by economic growth, population growth and urbanization. It has been shown that it is possible to manage economic growth in ways that preserve environmental quality and enhance human health.  Achieving the benefits of economic development while minimizing its harmful impacts will require an increased awareness of links between environment and health to improve public health.

Achieving these benefits will depend on a greater emphasis on prevention such as managing the environment so that health risks do not occur. This is important because health risks are associated with environmental degradation. Environmental risks are borne disproportionately by the poor and disenfranchised; not just in developing countries but in affluent nations as well.  Economic disparities are increasing both within and among countries.  As a result of these disparities, the rich can often protect themselves from environmental threats to health while the poor usually cannot.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called poverty the world’s biggest killer. It has been shown that being poor increases one’s risk of ill health.  Poverty also contributes to disease and death through its second-order effects; poor people, for example, are more likely to live in an unhealthy environment.  Many of the world’s poorest are unable to secure even the bare necessities for a healthy life such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care.

Globally, one of the major causes of ill health is malnutrition. Malnutrition is an issue of poverty and rarely an indicator of food shortages.  As a result of malnutrition, people are more susceptible to infectious and chronic diseases.  Statistically, malnutrition contributes up to one half of deaths among children in developing countries.  Thus, rising income results in more and better food, housing and clothing.  The wealthier also tend to be better educated and more informed about the disease process and thus are able to maintain healthy.

Poverty also influences health because it largely determines an individual’s risk as well as access to resources to deal with those risks.  Globally, the greatest environmental health threats tend to be those closest to home. More than 1 billion people in developing countries live without adequate shelter, more than 1.4 billion lack access to safe water, and more than 2.9 billion have no access to adequate sanitation.  Inside smoky dwellings of developing countries, air pollution is often higher than it is outdoors in the world’s most congested cities.  In these settlements, garbage collection is often nonexistent and drainage tends to be poor, creating ideal conditions for insects and other diseases.

In some countries, the poor often face health risks related to economic growth.  Studies suggest have shown that hazardous waste sites or polluting industries are indeed concentrated in low-income or minority areas.  For example, urban slums may be located near major roads, factories or dumpsites, exposing residents to higher levels of air pollution.  According to WHO, worm infections are on the rise in urban slums and shantytowns of the developing world.

The global economy is burgeoning.  (WRI)  Although the developed countries account for a majority of the share of this wealth, economic growth in developing countries has been tremendous.  The liberalization of both trade and investment across borders has helped fuel this economic growth.  Such economic growth creates resource and opportunities for improving the quality of living conditions, which is essential to good health.  In some developing countries, continued population growth and poverty have thwarted economic and social progress.  The most rapid population growth rates are concentrated in the poorest regions.  Although there has been enormous economic growth, it appears that the health problems linked with economic stagnation, poverty and environmental degradation are likely to continue.

The positive economic and social results of industrial growth have been accompanied by serious environmental degradation as well as growing threats to health.  As part of this growth, industrial wastes are growing in quantity and becoming more varied, more toxic and more difficult to dispose.  (WRI)  Furthermore, a large share of industrial growth in developing countries revolves around the transformation of raw materials into industrial products such as steel, paper and chemicals. The production of industrial chemicals has been shifting to the developing world. In contrast, much of economic growth in developed countries is now in the service sector, for example: education, entertainment and business which are essentially less polluting.  This rapid industrial growth has made water pollution, air pollution and hazardous wastes concerning environmental problems in many areas of the developing world.  The lack of hazardous waste facilities adds to the problem, with industrial wastes often discarded on arid or public lands, in rivers, or in sewers.

Part of the growth of industrialization has been caused by globalization.  Globalization describes the rapid spread of free trade, the development of free markets and the growth of private investment across borders. This allows many companies to locate their operations in developing countries, where labor costs are significantly lower.  Unfortunately, globalization also carries the risk that in order to compete for valuable industries, countries will neglect measures to restrict child labor, to protect the environment, or to ensure worker safety.  Also, industries heavily regulated in the developed world because of their harmful environmental and health impacts are migrating to the developing world.

Environmental dangers to health are not only limited to developing countries.  Environmental health problems vary form region to region, reflecting geography, climate, and a country’s level of economic development and policy choices.  Many environmental health problems are associated with poverty and a lack of essential resources.  Economic growth is not sufficient to improve health for all, especially if rising income disparities mean that millions of people will not participate in those advances.  As this income gap increases, the health gap is also likely to grow.