Human Illnesses Hurt the Environment, Suggests Study

Posted by Crystal Ponti on

A toxic environment, especially one where the air and water is polluted, can create health problems for people. Now, new research suggests sick people can create health problems for the environment too.

Around Kenya's Lake Victoria, a fishing community where locals battle high rates of disease and a depleted fish stock, scientists found that human illness exacerbates unsustainable fishing practices. The study questions long-held assumptions in environmental research that human disease provides a natural check to environmental exploitation. The logic is that when humans are ill, they are less likely to harm the environment. This study sheds light on an opposing problem.

“Studies have suggested people will spend less time on their livelihoods when they are sick, but we didn’t see that trend in our study. Instead, we saw a shift toward more destructive fishing methods when people were ill,” Kathryn Fiorella, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University, said in a press release. Fiorella was a doctoral student at Berkeley during the study, working in the lab of professor Justin Brashares.

To better understand the links between human and environmental health, Fiorella spent three months of each year of her graduate studies at Lake Victoria, a place where health and the environment are intertwined in complex ways and have been for decades.

British colonists in introduced Nile perch, a predatory fish, into Lake Victoria’s commercial fishing industry in the 1960s. Near the top of the water’s food chain, these fish quickly became dominant and caused the extinction of hundreds of native cichlid species. Several decades later commercial fishing grew rapidly around the lake, and perch populations started to dwindle. During the same time, the HIV epidemic was spreading throughout East Africa. As Lake Victoria’s fishing community grew sicker, the environmental exploitation of the fishery worsened.

The study tracked 303 households on Lack Victoria to see how illness was altering fishing practices. Through a series of interviews, researchers collected data about household health and fishing habits and looked for trends during times of sickness and good health. When ill, fishers were more likely to use methods that were illegal, destructive and concentrated near the shoreline, but required less travel and energy, the study found. 

Quality healthcare, as the study suggests, could have far greater benefits beyond just the human population. The findings show that it can also affect how people manage the environments in which they live. When people feel well, they are more likely to take care in their work and in how they approach everyday life. When under the weather or when health is impacted by environmental factors such as air and water pollution, people tend to rush through the day and their tasks at hand. This can lead to wastefulness, littering, and approaching the environment in a more destructive way.

“Healthy people, it turns out, are better for the environment,” Richard Yuretich, program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program, which funded the research, said in a press release.

The study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fiorella also received Rocca fellowships through the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley to fund her work.

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