Debate on the effects of environmental epidemics

OCTOBER 2011

10-03-01Heatwaves like the one in Europe in 2003, natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions that disrupt air traffic, and earthquakes and accidents like the one at the Fukushima nuclear plant or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are just some of what are known as “environmental epidemics.” They involve long-term exposure to chemical toxins or physical agents that affect a large proportion of the population.
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The latest research findings on the effect of the environment on individuals’ health were presented at the 23rd Annual Congress of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE), which was held at the Fira de Barcelona for the first time in September.

10-03-02According to professors Manolis Kogevinas and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, joint presidents of the organising committee, this year’s conference was attended by more than 1,000 scientists, “making it the world’s most important event in its field. ”

The importance of this event reflects the status of the organising body, the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology: it has members iin more than 60 countries, especially Europe and North America, “although recent years have seen an increase in members from China, Korea, Taiwan and Brazil, where growing industrialisation has caused led to environmental pollution that is out of control,” they say.

Effects on health

According to the World Health Organization, mortality due to environmental pollution has increased. Scientists have proven that pollution, for example, is one of the major risks for human health and the source of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Other subjects for analysis included the relationship between polluted water and cancer; the effect of some chemicals on the hormones, and the possible consequences of the pesticides used in agriculture on the children’s neurodevelopment.

To avoid increasing levels of pollution and negative effects on the community, the researchers proposed preventative measures for implementation in cities, such as alternative urban planning and the promotion of more green spaces.

10-03-03Professors Manolis Kogevinas and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen are co-directors and senior researchers respectively at the CREAL (Environmental Epidemiology Research Centre). This institute was established in 2005 as part of an initiative by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Enterprise in collaboration with the Barcelona Parc de Salut Mar, and it focuses its research on environmental health.

One of the current projects at the CREAL is the study of the effects of some toxic chemicals present in drinking water or swimming pools on health. “We found that prolonged exposure to drinking water with trihalomethane (used to disinfect the water) is associated with a high risk of developing cancer of the bladder,” says Cristina Villanueva, a researcher working on this project with Kogevinas and Nieuwenhuijsen.

MARINA MAYER