Ecological public health
5 July 2012
RSPH was delighted to be invited to a mini-symposium last week on Ecological Public Health. The session was chaired by Dr Fiona Sim, Editor of our academic journal Public Health.
The event was held to coincide with Rio+20, the UN conference on sustainable development and was hosted by City University’s Centre for Food Policy.
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, made the welcoming note; highlighting how health advice can be at odds to sustainable aims. For example, recommendations are made to eat fish, but fish stocks are not necessarily sustainable.
Dr Sim introduced Dr Geof Rayner, who examined the term ‘ecological public health’, looking at it as a cycle between the material, the biological, the cultural and the social. He called for the environment to be viewed as part of us, as we constantly exchange matter with it, and for any conservation effort to be viewed as essential, not simple altruism. Whilst anthropogenic impact on the environment increases, so significantly does the rate of biodiversity loss. Discussing other models of public health; sanitary-environmental; social-behavioural; bio-medical; techno-economic; Dr Rayner highlighted that all public health traditions must be integrated and that one model cannot be critiqued over another.
Interestingly he called for public health to gain more momentum; to once again become a movement, as this is how it began many years ago. Dr Rayner also pondered what effect Rio+20 will have, particularly set against the carbon that will have been used for so many people, globally, to attend.
Dr John Middleton, Director of Public Health Sandwell, gave a local perspective and spoke on a lack of environmental justice, saying that the poor are more likely to be exposed to environmental risk. He highlighted three key areas within ecology and health; mental health and environment; obesity; and Legionella. For example, someone living in a high-rise flat may be in a poor state of mental health, but as a doctor cannot change their environment, they are prescribed anti-depressants instead. Someone from a poor socio-economic background may live close to a factory and cooling towers, increasing the risk of exposure to Legionella.
Dr Middleton gave some examples of community-build and time-trade (or time bank) projects that have been put into action in Sandwell; helping the local community to improve their area.
Dr David Percheon who is Director of the NHS’ Sustainable Development Unit highlighted human nature as destructive to the ecological approach. He identified humans as developing, frontier beings who need to adapt to a steady world of sustainability. He also identified a mass, global denial of climate change. Climate change is positioned as an environmental issue, but when it is framed as one within public health its significance can be more clearly seen.
Dr Percheon pondered that as health is everyone’s business it has become no one’s business or responsibility. He believes that the main catalyst for change will be a crisis of some description for which anyone working in public health and sustainability must be ready to take advantage of.
The final speaker, Dr Caroline Lucas, is an MP for the Green Party. She looked at the history of public health; that the challenges of health and the environment were being highlighted in the 19th Century by Dickens, for example. As far as we have come, in the 21st Century we have a new set of issues to solve. She postured that whilst public health has stayed high on the political agenda, environmental issues can wax and wane.
Continuing her theme of progress versus rising issues, Dr Lucas spoke on how the contraceptive pill was a massive public health development for women in particular, but there is evidence that one of the ingredients, EE2, is having a detrimental effect in fish as it ends up in our waterways.
Dr Sim opened questions to the panel form the floor, which provoked further discussion and debate which continued over refreshments.