Urban environments provide livelihoods, infrastructures, services, access to health, education, information, vibrant cultural exchanges, and more. However, these environments can also worsen health risks and provoke new shocks and stresses in the intersection with other sectors such as land use design and planning, water, energy, waste and resources, natural environment, logistics, infrastructure, or housing.
Extremely hot and cold episodes, urban heat island effects, lack of access to walking pathways and bike lanes, and green infrastructures unfairly distributed within urban space; in addition to the wide availability of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods and beverages; drive the so-called Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) epidemic.
|In relation to this topic, we interviewed Dr. Paula Sol Ventura (PV), who is an expert in environmental medicine:|
PV: Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are chronic diseases that are not transmitted from one person to another. They tend to be long in duration; and result from a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental, and behavioural factors such as smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity and exposure to toxic substances.
PV: NCDs and pollution are interlaced through several multidimensional factors. On the one hand, exposure to air pollutants such as fine particles (PM2.5), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) may increase the risk of heart and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer. On the other hand, exposure to toxic chemicals in contaminated water or food has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, nervous system disorders, as well as hormonal disorders.
Fig. 3: NCDs related to environmental risk factors. Source: PV.
PV: Environmental pollution damages the organism through various and complex anatomy-physiological mechanisms, which may vary depending on the pollutant, the affected organ, or the body system. Some of these mechanisms may be due to the activation of a chronic inflammatory response in tissues or organs to the effect of endocrine disruptors, which can mimic or block the action of natural hormones or damage genetic material. In addition, persistent and bio-accumulative pollutants can be deposited and stored in different organs and tissues over time, perpetuating and worsening the damage.
PV: Many chemicals (and Heavy-Metals are included in this category) are found naturally in the environment, but they can also be released in large quantities into the environment due to human activities such as mining, industry, or fossil fuels burning, polluting the air, water, and soil. There are metals that are necessary, in acceptable doses, for the proper functioning needs and requirements of our body. But in high doses, they can cause harm and increase the risk of chronic diseases, especially when we consider that some people are more susceptible than others. Some Heavy-Metals, regardless of whether they are necessary for our body or not, can have a toxic effect in low, moderate, or high doses, especially in vulnerable stages of life, such as intrauterine development or early life stages. Some examples are:
- Lead (Pb): affectation of cognitive development and the nervous system, anaemia, hypertension, renal dysfunction, immunotoxicity and reproductive organ toxicity.
- Cadmium (Cd): nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, lung and kidney diseases.
- Cupper (Cu): nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and liver damage.
- Zinc (Zn): nausea, anaemia, affect the immune system, and HDL cholesterol decreasing.
PV: It is important to take steps to reduce exposure to environmental pollutants and Heavy-Metals, such as improving air, water, and food quality. Controlling industrial emissions and promoting safe practices in handling certain substances can reduce exposure to pollution, an essential step in preventing and controlling NCDs and promoting better overall health.