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THE POLITICIANS MISSED THIS ONE: The Link Between Environmental Degradation & Poverty

More jobs!

For decades, politicians have harped on the need for more jobs as the remedy for poverty. It’s the way to revive dying cities, they say. The path for bettering your circumstances, paying for college, securing your family’s future. Jobs are the answer.

But perhaps those politicos have overlooked something.

It’s hard to work when you’re sick.

It’s hard to ace the job interview when you’re loopy from pain meds. Or when your eyes are red from lack of sleep. It’s hard to function on days when you’re dizzy, on dialysis, or coping with ongoing discomfort or disability.

In fact, visiting the doctor or a therapist can be a part-time job for those who are chronically sick.

And you can’t just leave a child at home who is chronically ill. They need you to be present. Jobs alone are not the remedy for poverty.

Sometimes the root causes for poverty are apparent only after you’ve spent significant time with those in need. When you do, you’ll hear things like: “I want to work, but pain prevents me from getting out of bed.” Or, “I can’t manage my radiation and chemo treatments and still work.” “I can no longer drive to get to my job.” Many people want to work, but health problems are holding them back.

If you really want to help people, I encourage you to care about the some of the deeper matters that prevent them from fully living and working.

One of them is environmental degradation and its overwhelmingly negative impact on health.

When we talk about environmental degradation (and borrowing from the World Health Organization’s definition), we’re referring to all of the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behavior and ability to work.

These environmental issues affect all people, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, as well as all living things. But environmental problems disproportionately affect those already at risk. Like the poor. The very young. The elderly. Those already suffering with illness.

How much illness or disease could be prevented through better management of our environment?

A lot.

The World Health Organization looked at this issue in 2006. They published a report that should give us all pause. It focused on global health, by region, and then examined separate factors for children. “The evidence shows that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of the diseases regularly reported by the World Health Organization. Globally, nearly one quarter of all deaths and of the total disease burden can be attributed to the environment. In children, however, environmental risk factors can account for slightly more than one-third of the disease burden.”

How exactly do these risk factors affect us? Here’s just a few:

AIR: Poor air quality is linked to premature death, cancer, learning disabilities, autoimmune disease, and damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems. According to one government site, “progress has been made to reduce unhealthy air emissions, but, in 2008, approximately 127 million people lived in U.S. counties that exceeded national air quality standards.”

WATER: Surface and ground water quality relates to drinking water and lakes, rivers, and other recreational waters. According to that same site, “Contamination by infectious agents or chemicals can cause mild to severe illness. Protecting water sources and minimizing exposure to contaminated water sources are important parts of environmental health.”

CLIMATE CHANGE: Weather and climate affect important determinants of health, including clean air, drinking water, food supply and quality, and more. According to WHO, “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. The direct damage costs to health (i.e. excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between US$ 2-4 billion/year by 2030.”

TOXIC WASTE: Reducing exposure to toxic substances and hazardous wastes is “fundamental to environmental health,” according to one government site. More and more, we’re starting to realize that toxic waste from past industrial processes is a present-day problem. Landfills leak, new dump sites are regularly discovered, and technology hasn’t yet caught up with the burial or disposal of some of the most toxic substances on the planet, all of which are negatively impacting the health of those nearby.

HOMES, SCHOOLS, and WORK: These are the locations where people spend most of their time. While there, they’re breathing toxic cleaning supplies, eating food containing endocrine-impacting pesticides, or breathing air impacted by inadequate heating and sanitation, all of which contribute to disease.

Let’s put some of these numbers in a smaller context. Niagara County, New York, which includes Niagara Falls, continues to decline. In Niagara Falls, for example, the median income for a household in the city was $26,800, and the median income for a family was $34,377. Something like 23% of the population was below the poverty line. The unemployment rate in the City of Niagara Falls was around 10 percent as of October 2010. Approximately 60 percent of residents in Niagara Falls receive public assistance such as food stamps, welfare, unemployment insurance and Medicaid.

Would more jobs alone fix the issues?

Not if the Niagara County health statistics are to be believed. According to these figures, significant numbers of people in Niagara County are dealing with sickness and chronic disease. We can infer that it’s interfering with the daily living of people in this county.

● Niagara County exceeds the New York State rates for cancer incidence and mortality. More residents here are spending time in doctor’s offices, hospitals, or in bed recuperating.

● Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD) and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the 3rd leading cause of death in Niagara County. (Asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the main diseases included in this category. It includes non-smokers.) Fully 15.30% of the adult population suffers with asthma. That’s higher than the national percentage (13.20%) and New York State (14.06%). Asthma complications and treatment cause people to miss work, and sometimes prevent them from working certain jobs at all.

● Cardiovascular disease and diseases of the heart are the leading causes of death in Niagara County. The premature death rate from cardiovascular disease refers to those who are between the ages of 35-64 and have died due to heart disease. Niagara County is 2nd in the Western New York region for premature death due to cardiovascular illness. The toll from these diseases extends to the families devastated by the loss of a parent.

● Niagara County leads the region in hospitalizations for stroke. Niagara County has a 34% rate of hypertension as compared to New York State at 26.8%.

That's a lot of loss. A lot of missed work opportunities. And who’s caring for these sick people? Who’s driving them to appointments, taking them to the hospital, grieving over their loss when they die?

So what do we do, especially if we call ourselves people of faith?

We act. Many of the environmental risk factors that contribute to disease are ones that we can control.

● We get to the bottom of how and why people are being exposed to harmful toxins. And then we do something about it. We take action when there’s been an oil spill. Or a leaking landfill. Or a rumored dumpsite that nobody’s sure about.

● We highlight poor environmental practices so that people demand change. Recent documentaries have spurred action in many industries, including food, textiles, and more.

● We hold agencies and politicians accountable for finding answers and righting wrong things.

● We support sustainably-produced clothing, goods, or food. Prices will drop as supply and demand even out.

● We conduct our own businesses with transparency. Let’s be truthful when our product contains harmful chemicals that degrade the body or the environment. Those wrinkle-free shirts? Do they contain formaldehyde? Let’s not lie about the science or fudge testing results. Let’s not misrepresent our innovative green products or their capabilities.

● We educate people about potential sources of contamination. We can educate consumers to make better choices in the foods they buy, or the clothes they wear.

● We invent better technology and processes (a recent example being the strides in addressing combined sewer systems in Buffalo).

If you want to really help people, especially the poor and disenfranchised, then you must examine the root causes of their condition. The toll that a degraded environment takes on the poor and disenfranchised is one of the more significant factors in keeping people down.

Readers, this is how we do justice. Show mercy. Love our neighbor. That’s what Christ did. And By following Him, we can help push society toward a sustainable future that reflects the character of God.

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