Environmental Degradation and Public Health

Speaking of Earth Day

With the recent observation of Earth Day, many people may be considering the ways that environmental degradation affects our world. Commonly, problems like accelerated rates of extinction in wildlife, the depletion of natural resources, the shrinking of the polar ice caps, or the rising of sea levels come to mind when people are asked to think about the issue. What we may consider less frequently is the way that pollution and environmental degradation directly affects the health and well-being of human populations across the globe. Air pollution, water pollution, and climate change are all major factors for long-term health concerns and mortality on both community and international scales. 


Pollution and environmental degradation can have many effects, both direct and indirect, on the health of human populations. Long-term exposure to air pollution, for example, can lead to particulate buildup in the lungs and blood vessels. This causes chronic conditions such as asthma and cardiovascular diseases. Water pollution can be so severe that communities are left without potable water, creating outbreaks of waterborne infections. Both of these types of pollution are also linked to climate change; many of the same emissions that cause health problems when inhaled are also greenhouse gasses that increase the intensity of climate change. As climate change becomes more dramatic, flooding and storms wash contaminants into the waterways that communities use, while wildfires produce damaging particles that are inhaled by nearby populations. 

Other aspects of human health that are impacted by climate change include: 

  • Fatalities from heat waves 
  • Food insecurities and malnutrition as a result of adverse growing conditions affecting both crops and livestock 
  • Fatalities from foodborne illnesses, which develop because of contaminated food or an inability to preserve food in the current climate conditions
  • Fatalities and lower life expectancy following natural disasters, which increase in frequency with the change in climate 

Predictive Factors 

While climate change and environmental degradation have an impact on the health of all people across the globe, not all populations are affected in the same way. Two of the most prevalent factors in whether a person’s life expectancy is impacted by climate or pollutants are income and population density. 

“Income” can refer to both personal and community scales. Typically, a person with more income can afford high quality food and water, as well as medical care for conditions such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. This helps to mitigate their personal impacts from the environment they live in. Living in high-income communities and nations has a similar effect on a person’s longevity with respect to the environmental impacts they experience. High-income areas are often areas with strong regulations on emissions and pollution, and also have the funds to expend on health care interventions for their residents. While extensive spending on health care is a good temporary solution to the decreased life expectancy caused by environmental degradation, it can only treat a symptom of a pervasive issue, especially when the population being treated comes into direct and regular contact with the pollution that causes the health concern. 

Urban populations are especially vulnerable toward emissions-based health problems, as the density of cars, factories, and other fuel-based industries in cities creates a high concentration of pollutants. This same concern can also be extended to those that work in industries that lend themselves to high rates of chemical, heavy metal, or airborne particles. 

Sustainable Solutions 

Increased spending on health care by individuals and governments may not be a permanent or sustainable solution to the health effects experienced because of environmental degradation and climate change. However, there are some steps that individuals and communities can take to manage them. 

      1. Using alternative fuel sources

Finding alternatives to gasoline has been an ongoing conversation in sustainability sciences for a long time, but this is not the only energy source of concern. Any combustible, be it cow pats, household garbage, etc. releases CO2 and other contaminants into the atmosphere, causing health concerns for those exposed. Transitioning to clean-energy alternatives can have massive benefits, especially on a household level in places where the use of biomass fuel for cooking is common (Mumtaz et al, 2021).

      2. Using sustainable agriculture 

As agriculture has become an industrialized practice worldwide, the deforestation and erosion that occurs as a result changes the landscape and destroys many protective factors for human health, such as CO2 sequestration, protection against flooding, and temperature control. The use of barrier crops, crop rotation, and farming techniques specifically designed for the landscape being farmed are all practices that can help mitigate these effects. 

      3. Infrastructure and filtration system improvements

In urban and industrial settings, the removal of pollutants from the air is essential for improved air quality and increased life expectancy. Using filters and adequate ventilation systems for factories and other industrial zones can help lessen harmful emissions, resulting in healthier workers and general populations. Similarly, increasing green spaces and barriers along roadways can mitigate the effects of vehicle emissions and remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

Additional Learning

Below are some additional recommended resources for those who would like to learn more about the effects of environmental degradation on human health. 

The National Institute of Health:

The American Public Health Association: :

Determinants of life expectancy in most polluted countries: Exploring the effect of environmental degradation:

For resources regarding our published texts, which go into many aspects of health and how people are affected by different conditions, visit our bookstore.

This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications.


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