Governments need to study the connections between health and environmental concerns, which could save them money and improve societal well-being over the longer term, according to the European Environment Agency.
Common ragweed is a flowering plant native to North America, whose seeds probably crossed the Atlantic in agricultural produce for the first time in the 19th century.
The plant, which outcompetes unadapted local vegetation, can reduce crop yields, impacting on food availability. It can also cause significant irritation amongst those allergic to its pollen.
“This story illustrates the importance of considering the environment, health and wellbeing together rather than separately because these issues interact in complex ways with a range of costs and benefits for society,” says the EEA, in the publication Signals 2014.
The EEA is also seeking to promote this kind of thinking in relation to climate change and other complex problems.
Noxious emissions can damage the environment, as seen in acid rain or reduced crop yields, or human health, with higher incidences of respiratory diseases, with the costs falling on governments and taxpayers.
“It may seem there is nothing new about considering different policy areas together – air pollution, for instance, has often been considered in terms of its health implications. But the report argues that research should further incorporate these areas, allowing us to gain a system-wide understanding of multiple causes and effects,” the EEA says, referring to a report it released in February on the environment, health and well-being.
By failing to address the source of the problem, government costs can mount up, particularly in healthcare. Many European countries had to cut their healthcare budgets during the economic crisis, leaving citizens unable to receive treatment, such as medicines.
However, with many problems being inter-linked, the potential for governments to reduce their costs is great.
“It is difficult to measure the effects of our environment on our health,” said Lode Godderis, a researcher on health and the environment with KU Leuven, in Belgium. However, sometimes the scientific evidence does reveal connections, he said.
Not long after Ireland introduced a smoking ban in bars and restaurants in 2004, with other countries following soon after, healthcare officials saw an immediate reduction of the number of admissions for strokes and respiratory diseases.
“In one year, some countries that introduced the ban saw a 10 to 20% reduction in admissions,” Lode said. The number of pre-term births also decreased.
“That was a surprise for researchers like us as well. Even after one year, you see impacts, so that gives an idea about the order of magnitude that environmental issues have on health,” he said.
Sometimes the problem can be that ministries are divided into “silos”, with relatively little interaction between them.
“If you look at the current legislation, you see that, for example, work and health policies are being drafted by the ministries of labour, whereas air pollution and environmental issues by environmental agencies and nutrition by public health ministeries,” Lode said.
“This reflects the need for these institutions to sit to together and think about a global approach,” he added.
Obesity, is another example of a health problem with many causes. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found links between obesity various societal issues such as widespread inactivity, through the use of cars and sedentary work environments, and nutrition.
Poor nutrition, whether from high salt, sugar or fat content, can have impacts in other areas as well, from cancers to cardiovascular diseases.
Researchers have found that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, migrants who moved to Germany and Israel had significantly lower levels of stomach cancer compared to their compatriots who stayed in the country, where diets consisted largely of smoked meats and smoked fish, with lower access to fruit and vegetables.
A European Commission communication on nutrition, with inputs from various directorates, is expected within the coming months.
EU governments and officials are considering organising the new Commission, which begins its term later this year, into “clusters”, so as to better facilitate interaction between directorates.