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Human Health and Conservation

Higgins, Jonathan 6/27/2012

Our work improves human health. We should measure and communicate that impact.

On Earth Day, I was on a panel discussion in Chicago after a screening of the film “Living Downstream,” a documentary based on a book of the same name by Sandra Steingraber that addresses the links among environmental contaminants and risks to human health. Like me, Steingraber is a Ph.D ecologist who grew up in the Midwest.

Like me, she is surviving cancer. She was adopted, yet many of her family members have the same or similar types of cancer as she does. She believes that her and their cancers were induced through exposure to commonly used agricultural chemicals that are pervasive environmental contaminants in the places where they lived and worked.

Sandra has become a leading authority on environmental contaminants and their links to cancer, and has by default become the modern Rachel Carson, one of her idols. The film is impressive and moving. So I wondered after seeing it: How could I contribute to activities that might lower these kinds of health risks?

And then I thought: Am I already doing it? Doesn’t the work of The Nature Conservancy already contribute to lowering health risks? And shouldn’t we be talking about these benefits more forcefully?

The Conservancy, of course, sees benefits to people as the new future for conservation. We are focusing on ecosystem services and socioeconomic sustainability. Most of our new strategies seem intended, whether on purpose or not, to benefit the extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum — mega-corporations and the poor (although there is currently little evidence to support whether what we do actually provides those benefits), along with nature.

Human health, on the other hand, knows no geopolitical or socioeconomic boundaries and often has clear connections to environmental health. Yes, many risks to human health and access to health care are indeed closely linked to socioeconomic status. But many illnesses such as cancer do not recognize these boundaries, and they affect millions if not billions worldwide. I am talking about more than just protecting habitats that contain potential sources of new drugs. Is conservation lowering the risk to human health by dealing with the sources of illness? And could we do even more?

Evaluating if and how our work benefits human health — and then touting those benefits when they exist — makes tremendous sense. If we can identify such benefits, it would greatly expand the scope of our measured impact (when we actually start measuring it) and the base of our support. I certainly don’t want to start a paper tiger of false pretense in TNC about the benefits of our work — and I’m not suggesting that we create a global health priority to go along with all our other priorities. But I am suggesting we investigate (with reputable partners that have expertise in human health) which health gains conservation is and might be contributing to and then figure out how to scale these interventions for the greater good of people and conservation.

Possible Benefits

Here are just three of the areas in which I think conservation has a great opportunity to measure and communicate the impacts our work has on human health:

  • Diarrhea from waterborne disease is one of the most common sources of infant mortality in the world. Cancer is pervasive, and many of its risk factors are linked to environmental contaminants. Poorly managed landscapes and water systems are responsible for a large source of these illnesses, among many others. Globally, more than 1 billion people lack access to clean water, and many of them are in developed countries, living with excessively contaminated water supplies that water treatment (when available) does not always make safe for consumption. Can we document the contributions that best management practices (BMP) for landscapes and water systems make to reduced incidence of waterborne illness or even cancer? We already expect that our work to fence cattle out of streams (part of our water funds efforts) reduces risk of waterborne illness; and we are establishing monitoring to confirm this expectation.
  • Atrazine is an herbicide widely used in agriculture and lawn care, and a common contaminant in drinking water sources. In her film, Dr. Steingraber stated there are stronger links of risks to human health to Atrazine than there were to PCBs when they were banned in the United States. Atrazine is banned in Europe, and the U.S. EPA has defined an allowable threshold for Atrazine concentrations in municipal water supplies based on risks to human health. I am not suggesting here that we rally to ban Atrazine — that’s not our role as an organization. But conservation is already helping to reduce the input of Atrazine and other agricultural chemicals into some of our water supplies, through policies and agricultural best management practices that reduce surface runoff and in-stream loadings of sediments and nutrients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2010 that, for the Upper Mississippi River Basin, models based on field monitoring of individual farms suggest that agricultural BMP implementation has reduced Atrazine in-stream loads by 51% as well as generally reducing pesticide loss from fields to surface water, resulting in a 51% reduction in edge-of-field pesticide risk for aquatic ecosystems and a 48% reduction in edge-of-field pesticide risk for humans (for all pesticides combined).
  • Extremely low water flows in rivers resulting from extensive water consumption and flow management for a variety of purposes can result in increased concentrations of contaminants — such as agricultural chemicals and sewage — in rivers that people use as water sources. Pollution levels can become so high that the water cannot be adequately treated, making it dangerous for any human use. Such low flows can also result in salt-water intrusion from oceans, making water unhealthy to drink and unsuitable for a variety of other uses, such as irrigation. Our work to protect watershed sources of water, to appropriately manage dam outflows, and to help farmers to irrigate more efficiently all results in higher low flows that can avoid these situations and make water supplies safer for people. We should be monitoring and estimating our impact to human health in these situations as well.

The Conservancy’s marketing touches on some of these benefits to human wellbeing, but we should get straight to the point if we can. For instance, in North America alone, 600,000 people die of cancer every year. To what extent can we lower the risk of cancer through our work in the Mississippi River Basin? To what extent are we lowering risk from waterborne illnesses through water funds and our flow management and agricultural irrigation practices? Does our work in terrestrial and marine conservation offer similar direct health benefits? What are they and who receives them?

It is time to stop being esoteric about benefits to people, and step up and show how and why our work really matters to people where it counts — to someone who has had a child or friend die in their arms from an avoidable illness, or a cancer patient who has gone through hell and back. Believe me. I have been there.

Jonathan Higgins is a senior aquatic ecologist for the Global Freshwater Program at The Nature Conservancy.