Several years ago my wife, Janet, and I began searching for a country cabin to purchase for weekend retreats. North of Toronto in the Muskoka district we found some beautiful turquoise lakes. We were deeply impressed and admired their tropical colors, only to be told that the lakes were “dead.” Acid rain, caused by industrial pollution of the atmosphere, had acidified the water to such a degree that the lakes were devoid of flora and fauna. Beautiful to look at but toxic for any kind of life within them, such lakes have become sterile.
Pollution of water and air, destruction of natural habitats, and massive industrialization threaten the continuation of life as we know it; therefore, environmental awareness is important to the maintenance of health.
Many people are beginning to voice what has sometimes been labeled a “politically incorrect” viewpoint: that overpopulation is the worst environmental threat we are faced with today.
Current projections still predict a global population somewhere between 8 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050.1 The effects of overpopulation depend on the ratio of population to sustainable resources, as well as on the distribution of such resources, including clean water, clean air, food, shelter, and appropriate climatic conditions.
Destruction of forests to support the growing population results in loss of animal habitats as well as loss of plant species and their capacity to remove carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Overpopulation also presents serious difficulties to effective governance and stress; consequently, strife and turmoil often ensue.
Deforestation on a massive scale often results in damage to the quality of the land. Although some 30 percent of the earth’s surface is still covered by forest, large tracts of land are lost annually to deforestation.
Deforestation contributes to climate change. Moist forest soils quickly dry out without the shade of a forest canopy. Forest lands can quickly become deserts. The role played by forests in absorbing greenhouse gases is a central one. Poverty and the impact of climate change are felt much more acutely where drought and desertification take place.
Climate change may influence food production. Yields of grain, for example, have been shown in many situations to vary with temperatures. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines2 found that rice production declined by 10 percent for each 1-degree-centigrade increase in growing season nighttime-minimum temperature.
Reliance upon fossil fuels has characterized much of the energy utilization during the past century. It’s likely that the increased cost of such energy will drive the move to alternate energy sources. Regardless of cost issues, energy conservation is an important part of environment preservation.
Two areas of pollution that are particularly concerning are water and air pollution.
Industrialization has produced massive amounts of collateral waste material. Plastics, for example, are derivatives of petroleum-type products, and they do not naturally degrade easily. It’s been shown that plastic can persist for multiple decades. Plastic particles, called “nurdles,” have been found in the digestive tracts of krill, which are the ocean’s basic food source for most marine life.
Industrial waste—which includes such heavy metals as lead, mercury, and cadmium, as well as toxic dioxin compounds—is contaminating underground water. Radioactive contamination following the 2011 earthquake and massive tsunami off the coast of Japan will likely render the Fukushima area uninhabitable, perhaps for centuries. The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 resulted in increases in thyroid and other cancers. Radioactive isotopes leached into the water are a form of silent yet lethal pollution.
Outbreaks of disease are frequently related to viral and bacterial contamination by human and animal waste. The Blacksmith Institute Technical Advisory Board3 reports that persons living in polluted regions may not have immediate health problems, but may later develop cancers, lung infections, and mental retardation.
The American Lung Association4 estimates that roughly 50 percent of Americans live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or pesticide pollution.
Much of the sun’s radiation is important to well-being, but overexposure to ultraviolet radiation can be harmful.
Sunshine also converts cholecalciferol into the active vitamin D we need for so many bodily functions. Dermatologists, however, have noted the association between sunburn and skin cancer and advocate the avoidance of overexposure. On the other hand, vitamin D is probably an important factor in controlling the growth of other cancers, such as prostate cancer.
Health, God’s gift to us, is best maintained in the most natural state of unpolluted and hygienic purity. We are stewards of the earth, responsible for managing the earth’s resources and the environment of our bodies.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, is a former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.