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Exploring relationships between health and sustainability

Find out about the relationships between health and sustainability.
Welcome to session four of the course. I’m now joined by my colleagues, Linda and Neil. Hello both. Linda and Neil are health scientists. And I’ve written a list of questions for you both. Neil, perhaps I’ll start with you. Could you give me a sense of what’s the relationship between sustainability and health. Climate change is going to have huge impacts on all aspects of our lifestyle. And, of course, those will relate to health as well. So, for example, globally, we’ll see changes in infectious diseases. So, for example, tropical diseases might spread to more northern and southern latitudes and globally. In England and the United Kingdom, we’ve seen several flooding events recently. And we might expect these to become more frequent.
Flooding can make our houses damp which can exacerbate breathing difficulties, for example, asthma. And also there is the anxiety there which might have an impact on mental health. Again, from a global perspective, we might expect more migration of people as areas becoming less livable. And so, again, people are going to be moving to different areas. And that social conflict will, again, have mental health impacts I think. So how does that relate to health care services? Well, that’s a very good question, particularly here in the UK, where our national health service is one of the biggest employers in the world, I believe.
And along with that, it’s a really big emitter of carbon in the UK– so contributes to climate change in that way. We’re trying to do something about it in the NHS. We have a sustainable development unit. And we have some very stringent carbon reduction targets that are starting to have an effect. Carbon emissions have not increased from the NHS in the previous year. But a lot of that is about estates, about better transport, about better procurements of items that are used in health care and so on. These things are really important. And I know the NHS is having quite an impact globally in terms of the model that they’re promoting. Their materials have been translated into Portuguese.
And I think the Brazilian governments are using this approach as well. What does this mean for health care professionals, people working on the front line? Yes, well, actually you introduced me as a health scientist. But I’m a nurse. And that’s my professional background. That’s what I now do, teaching nursing. And that’s a really important issue really. Because is it all about estates, and transport, and so on? What does it actually mean for people who are delivering care? We conceptualise this really using a grid. And we see an axis running from society to the individual and from ill health to good health. And when you take that kind of grid approach, sustainability tends to be up in the top-right quadrant.
It’s about society and positive health. Whereas, clinical care, acute care, which is what we focus on and what we teach so much, is down. It’s all about the individual and being unhealthy. And what we really need to see is sustainability values going into the other quadrants as well. A really good example of this is in renal services, kidney services, in the UK where a lot of action is being taken by a movement called green nephrology to reduce waste, but also to improve patient’s experiences in the patient’s journey. So that’s an interesting thing that’s happening here in the UK. What about me as an individual? I’m very keen on being sustainable. I also want to be healthy.
Can I do those two things together? Yeah, definitely. This is the good news and the co-benefits to health. From a public health perspective, we see that a loss of the issues that we’re now facing, for example, obesity, diabetes, are linked to our lifestyles. And if we start to tend to reduce our carbon footprint, we find that the things that we’re doing are actually good for our health. So for example, we currently think of healthy lifestyle as going down to the gym and getting fit. Well, if you cycle or walk to work instead of getting in the car, then you’re reducing your carbon footprint and you’re getting fit and healthy at the same time.
But it’s also about communicating the messages, I think. So it’s just part of our culture now to be drinking Coke or drinking bottles of water all the time. If you drink have out of a reasonable bottle, and it’s water or something similar, you’re reducing the sugar that you take up. So it’s healthy. And it’s also reducing the carbon footprint from transport and the materials involved. So they often come together. I mean, if I could just give you quite a possibly off-the-wall example of that, I mean, one of my passions is supporting a nongovernmental organisation in Ghana called Dream Big Ghana in the Volta region there. And one of the projects there is an eco-sanitation project.
Only 14% of people in Ghana have access to decent toilets, very low. It’s 100% in countries like the UK. So what the project is doing in the village is building compost toilets to be used by families or groups of families. And they’re designed in such a way that they compost the waste to produce manure which is then used on the fields. But how does this link to health? Well, there’s quite a lot of evidence that some of the bowel problems that we experience in the West, diseases such as bowel cancers, diverticulitis, are because using Western flush toilets is actually not the best thing for our bowel health. The best position for us to relieve ourselves is to squat.
So a lot of the world still has squatting toilets. And these compost toilets that I’m so excited about are squatting toilets. So they’re beneficial for your health, they’re beneficial for the environment. And what we think of as quite retrograde might actually be a way forward for us here in the UK as well on every level. Well, thank you both very much for that. We’ll be looking at that grid Linda referred to and also the eco-sanitation project in Ghana elsewhere in the course.

In this session we look at the connections between sustainability and health. We start by listening to a conversation with Dr Linda East and Dr Neil Chadborn. Neil and Linda talk about health care systems and services, community health, and lifestyle choices for individuals. For them, the health benefits of a low carbon economy are a positive selling point for sustainability.

They refer to several aspects of the sustainability-health relationship:

  • Sustainability and exercise
  • Sustainability and diet
  • Sustainability and hygiene
  • Sustainability and health education
  • Sustainability and mental health

Linda also refers to the healthcare grid (see below) she designed with her colleague Benny Goodman from Plymouth University.

Think about: How can living a sustainable lifestyle have a positive impact upon health? Can you find a relevant website or other resource which helps to illustrate the importance of sustainability to one of the 5 dimensions of health listed above? Post a link to this website or other source and up to three points that contribute to the evidence. Please state the specific aspect you are covering in your post so that others who are interested in this aspect of the discussion can identify your post as relevant.

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Sustainability, Society and You

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