Should doctors be environmentalists/advocates for the environment?

One thing that sometimes crosses my mind is whether physicians and other health care workers should also be environmentalists. After all the environment does play a role in people’s health. Contaminated water lead to outbreaks of water born diseases (John Snow, a London physician in the mid 1800’s is credited [at least in part] for ending a Cholera outbreak  by convince authorities to block use of a water pump at the center of the outbreak).  The cholera outbreak following the earthquake in Haiti several years ago is another example. Polluted air leads to increased respiratory disease.

Though in the U.S. and other developed nations with functioning governments, the chances of contaminating water with sewage is low. The one exception could be when severe weather overloads the septic systems in an area. However even in the Northeast U.S. where I live, beaches are monitored for coliform bacteria (this is a generic term for bacteria that live in our guts) and closed when the counts are too high.

Air quality effects health of populations – there were reduced hospitalizations in parts of Ireland after there were bans placed on burning coal.  When lead was taken out of gas (well, actually prevented from being put in gasoline…), blood levels of lead dropped. It’s a neurotoxin and high blood levels can affect brain development in children (hence the ban of lead in paint in the U.S.), and function in adults. For water, it’s not just bacterial contamination/pollution that is important. Chemical pollution can also affect health. Toxins can build up in the food chain – this is part of the reason why it’s suggested that pregnant women limit their intake of certain fish, for example. Mercury builds up in fish at the top of the food chain, such as in Tuna, and can adversely affect people neurologically and adversely affect developing brains. Studies continue to show an association between air pollution and respiratory  deaths.

Given the number of of medications that are derived in whole or part from the plant and animal world (aspirin, reserpine, taxol, digoxin, penicillin, streptomycin, are all plant and fungal products), an argument could be made that making sure plant and animal species don’t become extinct because it might affect future drug discovery. Before you say “but wait,….” think of this: heparin is derived from the linings of Pigs. ACE inhibitors were discovered through research on snake venom. There are some newer medications for Type 2 Diabetes which are derived/grew out of research on saliva from a lizard known as the Gila monster.

 

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