Green fields, fresh thinking: Canada takes the lead on ecosystems and health

January 25, 2011
Donald Cole

Pollution can make people sick. Contaminated air or poisoned drinking water harm public health. The World Health Organization estimates that about one-fifth of the global burden of disease is due to the poor quality of the environment.

It may not be so obvious that, conversely, human illness can harm the environment. For example, farmers in Africa, debilitated by malaria or AIDS, may not have the physical stamina to tend their land. My

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own research showed that potato growers in the mountains of Ecuador used pesticides to the point that they poisoned themselves and their families, suffered neurological damage, and consequently made poor farming decisions.

The complex dynamic between environmental and human health is not just evident in the developing world. In southern California recently, many desperate mortgage holders abandoned their properties outright, leaving swimming pools, fish ponds, and Jacuzzis unattended, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes — and a spike in the deadly West Nile virus.

What does all this mean?

Simply put, the connections between ecosystem health and human health mean that policymakers, if they act wisely, can improve both areas at once.

The trick is first understanding this complex, multi-faceted relationship. Before any policies are introduced, research is needed to shed light on these links. And that’s where Canada’s contribution has been significant.
 

Carl Hiebert
A Malawian project participant holds her harvested groundnuts

Canadian leadership

Beginning in the 1990s, new forms of thinking began to emerge out of Canadian concerns about health in the workplace and about the pollution of the nation’s lakes and rivers. Researchers at the Université de Québec à Montréal were among the first innovators, following landmark studies of mercury contamination in Brazil and of First Nation communities and the wetlands of Lac St-Pierre, on the St. Lawrence River in Québec. Their ideas found their way into Canada’s universities, where they were taken up by an unheralded federal Crown corporation and applied throughout the developing world.

That corporation, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), funds research to combat global poverty. While highly regarded overseas, IDRC is virtually unknown in Canada. In company with other donor organizations, it has been supporting specialists in many countries who are searching for wide-ranging solutions to linked environmental and health problems.

The result of this work is an exciting field of study that has come to be called “ecohealth.”

IDRC has funded hundreds of ecohealth projects worldwide. It has supported research on the threat from avian influenza, the management of urban wastes in slum districts, the health effects of air pollution and mining contamination, and the relationship between biodiversity, food security, and safer agricultural practices.

Today, a key focus of ecohealth research is global warming. Scientists are worried about the impact of climate change on the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, on the supply and quality of drinking water, and on food security.
 

Peter Bennett
The Asian Partnership on Avian Influenza Research focuses on environmental and agricultural roots of Avian flu

Breaking new ground

Ecohealth research breaks new ground in several ways.

First, local people are expected to be more than objects of investigation; they are also invited to join in defining the problem and searching for practical solutions. This kind of involvement can pay valuable dividends.

In the case of the Ecuadorean potato growers, for instance, scientists explained that the chemical insecticides were harmful, but many farmers resisted cutting back because they feared doing so would cost them their livelihoods. It was only when the farmers took an active role in the research and explored alternative control measures — such as pest traps and better crop management — that they were able to reduce their use of pesticides, improve their health, and safeguard their livelihoods.

In a second principle, closely related to the first, ecohealth approaches support the participation of local people on an equal basis — especially groups like women, children, and the poor, who are often overlooked by other researchers and decision-makers.

Third, ecohealth research takes pains to mobilize experts from varied scientific disciplines. In traditional science, medical researchers would focus on the health effects of, say, a toxic spill, while environmentalists, working separately, would address the damage to the ecosystem, and so on. Ecohealth convenes all these scientists, as well as those with local knowledge, at the start of a project and encourages them to develop shared understanding and common strategies.

This broad collaboration fosters innovative, comprehensive, and sustainable solutions. For example, in Guatemala, a team of researchers worked with local people to show that simple structural and sanitary measures within the household can discourage the bug that transmits Chagas disease. And in India, stone quarry owners have agreed to use technology developed by ecohealth researchers to reduce the dust that causes so many respiratory problems among quarry workers.
 

C. Monroy
In Guatemala, the research team trained field workers from the Ministry of Health and members of the community to plaster walls in people's homes to prevent disease carrying bug infestations

Moving Forward

Thus, in a relatively short time — thanks to Canadian leadership — a whole new scientific discipline has been created. Ecohealth now brands research programs, scholarly journals, learned conferences, and websites. The ideas inform the work of academic associations and the content of university courses in Canada and abroad. The term, and the fresh and promising vision behind it — of health rather than disease and of prevention rather than just cure, through managing ecosystems better — have gone mainstream.

In early December, in Mexico, the ecohealth movement will enjoy a boost when the International EcoHealth Forum gathers researchers, policy-makers, journalists, development practitioners, and community representatives. This conference will be a key moment in the consolidation of the movement. Just as Canadians are proud of scientific advances like the discovery of insulin, so too should we celebrate our country’s role in launching this vital field of study.

 Dr. Donald C. Cole, an epidemiologist-community medicine specialist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, is among the pioneers in the development of the ecohealth approach. IDRC has supported his research, including his studies conducted with Ecuador’s potato growers.