Evidence of the connection between the environment and health is well-established. World Health Organization data suggests that environmental factors account for 24 per cent of the world’s burden of disease and 23 per cent of all deaths. Costs to human health are higher in developing countries, but environmental factors have a significant impact here in Ontario. For example, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) concludes that 9,500 deaths per year in Ontario are attributable to a limited number of air pollutants.
Evidence in both Canada and elsewhere shows that these impacts are disproportionately borne by those with the lowest incomes, particularly Aboriginal and racialized communities. This is particularly true at the global level with climate change. The most vulnerable people in developing countries are at greatest risk of harm from environmental degradation. In Canada, dozens of Aboriginal communities with contaminated water are under “Boil Water Advisories.”
Environmental protection is not only a matter of health, therefore, but also of social justice and equity. Environmental rights – clean air and safe water – must be recognized as human rights. Given the seriousness of consequences of environmental pollution, it is essential that we take a precautionary approach to protecting human health and the environment. When an activity threatens harm to human or environmental health, precautionary measures must be taken even if a conclusive cause and effect relationship has not been fully established scientifically.
In addition to the health and social costs, the economic costs of inaction on environmental determinants of health are high. To take just four environmentally related outcomes – diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, neurodevelopmental effects and hypothyroidism, and neurodevelopmental
effects and IQ deficits – the total economic and health burden on Ontario is estimated at up to $10 billion.