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Republished from The Hill Times, July 6, 2023.
Photo: Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos
It is almost 25 years since the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) was created. The CIHR began with and still has 13 institutes, covering topics such as aging, cancer, genetics, Indigenous Peoples’ health and population and public health, but there has never been an Institute devoted to environmental health.
Why the environment? On average Canadians spend 90 percent of their time indoors. If you find this surprising, try keeping a time diary for a week. You will likely spend only about 2 hours a day outdoors, with half of that in vehicles. Moreover, most of the time spent outdoors is in an urbanised setting, since we are 80 percent urbanised. Clearly, the built environment is going to be a major influence on our health. It provides housing, transportation, water and sanitation, green spaces and many other services vital to physical and mental health, as well as shaping our lives and behaviours.
More profoundly, however, we spend 100 percent of our time living within natural environments, which are the ultimate determinant of health. Natural systems provide the oxygen, water and food we and other species need to survive, and all the materials and energy we use to build and power our societies. Natural systems detoxify wastes, protect us from UV radiation and — for the past 12,000 years — have provided us with a stable and benign climate.
All that is threatened by human activity, resulting in what the United Nations calls a triple crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. These crises each pose significant health threats. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called climate change, “the single biggest health threat facing humanity,” while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said biodiversity loss threatens “more than three billion people”, and pollution and waste, “is costing some nine million lives a year.” These impacts are being felt by Canadians, from on-going wildfires and floods, to extreme heat, the accumulation of chemicals in our environment, and potentially crop failures.
Moreover, the impacts of massive and rapid global ecological changes and the design and quality of our built environment are not experienced equally. They compound existing health inequalities among Canadians. Environmental injustices connected to colonialism, racism, ageism, dis/ableism, and other forms of structural oppression and disadvantage manifest in greater exposures to adverse climate changes, chemical contaminants and related impacts.
In addition, there is a growing awareness and recognition that future pathways must centre the autonomy, knowledge, perspectives and practices of Indigenous Peoples in the face of these global ecological and societal crises. The important roles of global Indigenous Peoples’ leadership and ways of knowing have been recognized by the UN Secretary General and the Government of Canada.
At the very least, Canada needs a CIHR Institute on Environments and Health to fund research to assess these threats, and more importantly, to develop solutions. In truth, Canada’s response needs to be broader and more holistic. This is because the environmental changes are driven by a way of life and an economic system that is increasingly being seen as dysfunctional and a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health, even an existential threat.
We believe Canada needs a new trans-disciplinary Institute on Environments, Health and Wellbeing to research the interrelationships between environmental change, human behaviour, societal organization and health. The Institute must engender a next generation of innovative, evidence-informed actions that not only reduce harm, but seek to improve the natural and built environment by addressing the drivers of environmental change.
This Institute must also consider social, political, economic, legal and related drivers of ecosystem decline and unhealthy built environments, and how these drivers shape health and wellbeing for all and provide an evidence base for policy and regulatory decisions. This would lead to protection of public health, with enormous savings in the cost of the environmental health effects.
Such research can contribute to the creation of a Wellbeing Society, which according to the World Health Organization would be “committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits”.
In the 21st century, as Canada pushes up against these limits, the absence of an Institute devoted to the study of environments, health and wellbeing is untenable.