Community-based health research key to preventing diseases caused by environmental degradation

Daniel Green

(OTTAWA) - Canada needs far more research on preventing human diseases caused by environmental degradation. This research must be more community-based. This will lead to preventive measures better adapted to the affected communities.

Before becoming Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada, I was an environmentalist working in communities where people are coping with cancers and other diseases proven or suspected to be caused by toxic chemicals or bacterial contamination of water, soil, and air. Whether dealing with brain cancer clusters around the Valcartier National Defence Base near Shannon, Que., or the high incidence of cancer in women living around the steel mill and the hazardous tar ponds in Sydney, N.S., or sick people in Quebec having been exposed to bacteria after swimming in lakes and rivers polluted by sewer over-flows, it is clear that our governments have been lax in preventing health effects caused by environmental degradation.  

Currently, environmental health research initiatives have studied adverse health effects caused by degraded environments. This is mainly done by measuring human exposures to different types of environmental pollutants and identifying health effects in the exposed population. Recently this field has expanded to the concept of eco-health: an ecosystem approach to human health. Prevention is a major focus of both environmental and eco-health research.

However, if environmental health research is to have societal benefit, it must lead to actions that prevent harm. It is my belief that this can be done by having research methods that have more community involvement by engaging the impacted community.  

This comes from my 20 years of experience in community-based prevention actions against environmental diseases in Canadian cities, towns, villages and First Nations communities affected by environmental degradation.

Indeed, what better way to get a community to act to reduce disease caused by harmful environmental exposures than by having that community participate in research on the health effect of those environmental exposures. 

Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is Canada’s federal funding agency for health research. It supports more than 13,000 health researchers. One priority of CIHR is to prepare for and respond to existing and emerging threats to health of Canadians. CIHR’s core values include acting in the public interest by finding creative research approaches to address this country’s health challenges.

This is why CIHR should do more to fund research on community-based environmental disease prevention.  This would help CIHR deliver more “value for money” when funding environmental health research.

Environmental health research would benefit from direct participation of  exposed and impacted populations. This would result in better-informed populations demanding reduction of discharges of toxic chemicals and pathogens thereby reducing harmful exposures. This is real prevention by the people. 

One example of an innovative citizen-based participation in environmental health research is the use of personal cellphone apps that help collect data on exposure events, exposure location, symptom reporting, and daily movement. This would provide frequency, place and duration of exposures and related symptoms. 

Let’s take asthma for example, a disease whose rate has been increasing in this country. It is now known that asthma has both genetic and environmental causes. While you can’t change your genes, you can reduce your exposure to pollutants to prevent asthma. To do this, an asthma sufferer would need to know what causes the asthma attacks. Is it the cat or is it the cars on the highway close to home? Only direct and hands-on community based prevention research can answer that question. The cat fix is easy, but if it is the highway, then the asthma sufferer needs to know this and may decide to move or to fight for cleaner or fewer cars on the road.  With the asthma sufferers’ cell phone data, one could correlate time of an asthma event with wind direction to see if highway emissions cause the asthma attacks.

A last point on CIHR cancer research initiatives. Clearly, most federal cancer research money still predominantly goes to screening, diagnosis, treatment and support systems. Very little goes to prevention strategies. Yes, we must increase cancer survival rates in Canada, but we must at the same time decrease our cancer incidence rates, especially among the young.

CIHR says very little about doing research on reducing and preventing exposure of known carcinogens now being released into our environment. With more than 500 Canadians diagnosed daily with cancer and with the number of newly diagnosed cancer cases increasing, we need to identify research activities that would prevent human exposures to industry released carcinogens by identifying sources of emissions and pathways of human contact.

All cancers may not be preventable, but cancer-causing carcinogens should not be released into our environment. Now that’s prevention.