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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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NIEHS-IOM webinar to analyze Rio+20 declaration

By Cindy Loose

Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development logo
John Balbus, M.D.

Balbus leads NIEHS efforts on climate change and human health. In this capacity, he serves as HHS principal to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

For more than a year, NIEHS has been working to make human health an integral part of an international agreement on sustainable development.

Those efforts culminated in June, when thousands of participants and others gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The results of the conference, including an expected declaration of intent for action, will be analyzed this month during a webinar sponsored by NIEHS and the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

Sustainability and health

“Sustainable development is a widely shared goal, and our message has been that human health is both a driver of sustainable development and an indicator for judging success or failure,” said NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., who has led NIEHS efforts to ensure that health was central to conference discussions and decisions.

“We know that making the planet healthier goes hand in hand with making people healthier,” Balbus added. “Making that goal a reality is our ultimate mission.”

In initially setting the goal of re-energizing global development, and in a sustainable way, the U.N. created a framework for decisions around seven topics — jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans, and disaster readiness.

Although health did not make the list, it is inextricably linked to every issue, said Balbus, who helped launch a number of activities to make those links explicit and provide guidance about how to incorporate health into actionable goals for the world community.

Behind the scenes with WHO

In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), NIEHS supported a meeting of experts in Geneva who produced six briefing documents that made the case for human health as a critical element of the issues being discussed. The briefing documents also developed a set of indicators, based on health outcomes, for monitoring progress towards the goals.

The briefing paper on energy, for example, noted that nearly two million deaths, annually, are due to household air pollution from stoves fueled by coal and rudimentary biomass. About 1.3 million deaths, per year, are attributed to ambient air pollution in cities. Additionally, in some developing countries, over one-half of health care facilities lack reliable electricity, with some having no electricity at all.

The briefing paper then set out core health indicators to be used to monitor progress in sustainable energy access. For example, reducing rates of disease attributable to indoor and outdoor pollution would provide evidence of achievement towards the goal of moving towards sustainable energy. An increase in the proportion of health care facilities with reliable electricity would be another measure.

The briefing documents also point out crosscutting issues requiring further discussion. For example, the paper on energy notes that energy use is a primary driver of climate change and that substantial health benefits would be derived from mitigating global warming.

NIEHS partners in global health

The NIEHS-sponsored IOM Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine hosted a webinar with the Pan American Health Organization that highlighted the interactions between health and sustainable economic growth.

NIEHS has also been working with the U.S. Department of State, the White House, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Global Affairs to include environmental health concerns in the U.S. government positions at Rio+20.

An article, making the case for using the conference as a crucial opportunity to place environmental health at the forefront of the sustainable development agenda, was written by Balbus and intern Gregg Furie, and published in Ciência & Saúde Coletiva (Collective Science and Health), a prestigious Brazilian public health and policy publication, to coincide with the conference.

Citation: Furie GL, Balbus JM. 2012. Global environmental health and sustainable development: the role at Rio+20. Ciênc Saúde Coletiva 17(6):1427-1432.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer with the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

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