Introducing EcoHealth Ontario: Environment, Public Health and Resilience to Climate Change
April 1, 2015 – As people who care about both the forests and the trees, Forests Ontario members have an intuitive grasp on the link between vibrant ecosystems and well-being. Unfortunately, these links are not well-connected in many current programs and policies, which tend to separate public health from ecosystems and the environment. This separation works to the detriment of both ecosystems and the health of current and future generations.
How can we ‘prove’ that resilient ecosystems are integral to our health and the sustainability of our communities? When will investments in resilient ecosystems (green spaces, tree planting, biodiversity and so on) be recognized as preventive public health measures taken at multiple scales and by a variety of partners? How can we combat nature deficit disorder and raise a generation of children with everyday experience of the beauty, change and value of Ontario ecosystems? Ecohealth Ontario (ecohealth-ontario.ca) is a new collaborative of professionals from the fields of public health, medicine, education, planning and the environment who are seeking answers to these kind of questions.
Ecohealth’s objectives are to:
• Determine research needs and identify knowledge gaps
• Undertake or compile evidence-based research about the interactions among natural systems and human health and well-being
• Develop a shared set of values among public health, medical, education, planning and environmental sectors and professionals
• Develop new collaborative relationships across the public health, medical, education, planning and environmental sectors
• Share information and perspectives to enhance systems thinking and improve health outcomes
• Develop shared communication, education and outreach messaging for use by collaborative partners
• Encourage policy and program changes that help advance the protection, restoration and enhancement of ecosystem services for the health and well-being of our communities.
Climate change is a critical driver for this work. More frequent and extreme weather is already occurring in Ontario, throughout Canada and around the world. The late Anthony McMichael noted that greenhouse gas emission reduction is, in fact, “zero-level public health”. By this he meant that it underpins, and indeed provides the foundation for, our investments in primary (preventive), secondary (disease management) and tertiary (sick care/rehabilitation) health systems.
In public health, climate change is already raising concerns about the impacts of heat waves, flooding, new diseases and air pollution on all Ontarians, particularly vulnerable populations (for example, the elderly, children, the immunocompromised and First Nations populations).
EcoHealth Ontario’s goal is to develop new collaborations among the human health, social and environmental sectors and build a common agenda to foster improved health and well-being outcomes for Ontarians through the provision of better ecosystem quality, increased green space and enhanced access to nature.
Our work has only just begun. We are building on a wide range of recent initiatives (not all of which can be included here), including Forest Ontario’s report ‘A Healthy Dose of Green: A Prescription for a Healthy Population’, various Conservation Authorities’ programs, research on green spaces and public health by Toronto Public Health, and on climate change and health by the Middlesex-London Health Public Health Unit, as well as the David Suzuki Foundation’s 30×30 nature challenge and recent literature review on the impact of the natural environment on heat and air pollution in urban communities. The Ontario node of the Canadian Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health and the International Association for Ecology and Health have been involved in awareness raising and capacity development projects focused on the link between ecosystems, health and society for many years. There is a wealth of interest and talent in the province that Ecohealth Ontario is hoping to harness in order to reconnect public health with the environment in the programs and policies that shape our province.
We invite you to join us at one of our upcoming events and to sign up on our website to receive our newsletter. We welcome your engagement and suggestions for ways that we can shift the dialogue around public health in Ontario to focus not only only illness and the social determinants of health (poverty, education, housing, etc.) but also on wellness and the ecological determinants of health (clean air, water, land, etc.).
The time has come for action to tackle the critical questions of our generation related to the environment as a determinant of public health, as we live, work and play under the shadow of a changing climate. There is a critical role to be played by Forests Ontario in reframing the dialogue around what actions constitute legitimate and long-term investments in public health and well-being in the province.
About the Author
Dr. Karen Morrison is a member of the Ecohealth Ontario Steering Committee. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at York University, a co-principal investigator for the Canadian Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health and VP of the International Association for Ecology and Health.
About Ecohealth and Forests Ontario
Forests Ontario’s ‘A Healthy Dose of Green’ white paper was instrumental in bringing together key players who aligned to form Ecohealth Ontario. Our efforts to connect forests with human well-being shaped the direction of this collaboration, allowing for ongoing work into the links between environment and public health.
Photo Credit: Conservation Ontairo