There is a dynamic relationship between the environment and the health of the individual. The human body is constantly taking steps to ensure that the internal environment is kept constant in a state compatible with life. It can then be said that the appearance of disease of any sort indicates that the mechanism for maintaining the body’s internal space has been overwhelmed.
A critical appraisal of our atmosphere may shed some light on the situation and show whether or not we need to start pressing the panic button. One of the most critical components of the air we breathe is oxygen. Oxygen is critical to life. Without oxygen, life would simply grind to a screeching halt. However, according to Robert E Sloan, a professor of geology and geophysics at the university of Minnesota, back in time, about 70-100 million years ago, the percentage of oxygen in the air was as high as 35%. Prof. Ian Plimer of Adelaide University and Prof. Jon Harrison of the University of Arizona support this assessment. This means that the 21% that oxygen now claims as its share of the air that we breathe may actually mark the beginnings of an oxygen crisis. Please remember that the 21% does not refer to smoke and smog filled cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and London where the percentage may be much lower.
What could have been responsible for this slide in the percentage of oxygen in the air available to us? Over the years, large swathes of vegetation have had to make way for human habitation and the processes of the industrial revolution. If we remember that it is the trees that breathe out oxygen for us to use, it may be easy to spot the first of the many factors responsible for the reduction in the amount of oxygen available. Deforestation, as well as desertification, is rapidly accelerating this long-term loss of oxygen sources. At the same time, we have managed to pump increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of carbon stored in coal, oil and gas, the so called fossil fuels which seem to have become the main stays of our energy production. This process also consumes oxygen while continuing to destroy plant life. Destroying forests at such an alarming rate short-circuits the earth’s natural rebound and balance. We’re artificially slowing down one process, oxygen generation, and speeding up another, carbon dioxide emission, thereby forcing a change in the atmosphere and the climate dependent on it, regardless of what the opponents of climate change may claim.
The question of course could be asked: “How much difference does this reduction in oxygen content really make?” Useful as it is, we cannot really breathe pure oxygen, although high oxygen levels in certain conditions have been shown to reduce the progress of some diseases including cancer. The truth of the matter is while the oxygen content of the atmosphere may drop to between 11 and 18% over major cities with considerable pollution, at those levels it is difficult for the body to absorb sufficient oxygen to maintain health. It is necessary to have a reasonable oxygen level to allow the mechanics of absorption to operate effectively to keep body cells and organs, and the immune system, functioning. At the levels we are discussing in today’s atmosphere, cancers and other degenerative diseases are likely to develop, as we have already seen to our cost. Much lower than that and life can no longer be maintained.
One other thing present in the atmosphere that supports gas exchange in the lungs is water vapour. Water is an invaluable resource. About 70% of the planet is covered by water. 98% of the water is in the oceans, which is not available to us for drinking or other domestic use due to its high salt content. The remaining 2% of the water is fresh, but 1.6% is locked up in polar ice caps and glaciers. The precious little that is left, about 0.4% is found in underground tables and wells along with lakes and rivers. This analysis is important because contamination of the little portion of the water that we have access to may, at least partially, be responsible for some of the disease states that we see around us. Clean potable water is a necessary ingredient for good health but we have, since the time of the industrial revolution continued to pollute our water resources with various chemicals, toxins and even human waste. Planning, managing and improving the water environment is fast becoming and essential exercise if the human race expects to get away from the ravages of disease.
Chemicals and Pesticides
An increasing variety of chemicals used for a variety of purposes are also getting into the environment. For example, the chemical fertilisers we use to increase crop yield and the insecticides and pesticides that are employed to keep voracious pests away get in the food chain and wreak havoc with human health. Another example came out of a recent study that relates the hormones in contraceptive pills that women take to the rising incidence of prostate cancer in men. This is because, in the main, municipal drinking water is recycled, some of it from sewage. The filters are not configured to remove hormones from the water, the effect being that residual hormones remain in the water supply. In addition, burning fossil fuels releases particulates as residue along with some gases like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and some volatile organic compounds. Carbon monoxide also comes from using gas stoves, fireplaces and furnaces. All of this further worsens the environmental pollution that we face and have been implicated in some disease conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
All the information available to us vividly demonstrate that we need to start managing the environment more strictly and efficiently or we can just watch the Doomsday Clock tick one minute closer to midnight.