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The environment's impact on people's health: toxic gases, dirty water, and GM foods

September 29, 2019


The environment's impact on people's health: toxic gases, dirty water, and GM foods
The environment affects our health in a variety of ways. The interaction between human health and the environment has been extensively studied and environmental risks have been proven to significantly impact human health, either directly by exposing people to harmful agents, or indirectly, by disrupting life-sustaining ecosystems. Although the exact contribution of environmental factors to the development of death and disease cannot be precisely determined, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that thirteen million deaths annually are attributable to preventable environmental causes. The report also estimates that 24% of the global disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23% of all deaths (premature mortality) are attributable to environmental factors, with the environmental burden of diseases being 15 times higher in developing countries than in developed countries, due to differences in exposure to environmental risks and access to health care. For countries in the early stages of development, the major environmental hazards to health are associated with widespread poverty and severe lack of public infrastructures, such as access to drinking water, sanitation, and lack of health care as well as emerging problems of industrial pollution.
How the Environment Impacts Your Health
Though it can be scary to think about, facts are facts: Humans are rapidly changing the planet. The climate is warming, animal species are dying off at an unprecedented rate, and some of our most cherished natural treasures are expected to become unrecognizable in the span of our lifetimes. But it’s not just the aesthetic beauty of nature that’s at stake human health is affected as well, in ways you might not expect.
There are many ways that the natural environment impacts health and wellness, some of which research has yet to catch up with. But government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conduct in-depth research with some of America’s top doctors and environmental scientists to warn the public of potential dangers and keep people safe. Though some of these effects are more visible than others, here are some of the ways that the environment impacts human health.

According to the EPA, air pollution can interfere with your heart health and trigger heart attacks, stroke or irregular heart rhythm. The risk is especially high if you have existing heart problems or are already at risk for these conditions. To protect against these effects, the EPA recommends refraining from spending too much time in areas where pollution may be high, such as near busy roads or industrial areas or around a campfire.
What are GMOs and GM foods?
Genetic modification is a biological technique that effects alterations in the genetic machinery of all kinds of living organisms. GMO is defined as follows by WHO: “Organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. The definition seeks to distinguish the direct manipulation of genetic material from the millennial-old practice of improvement in the genetic stock of plants and animals by selective breeding. With DNA recombinant technology, genes from one organism can be transferred into another, usually unrelated, organism. Similarly, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the European Commission define a GMO as a product “not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. “GM foods” refer to foods produced from.
However, Oliver pointed out the aforementioned definitions are somewhat imperfect, giving Triticale as an example. Triticale is a grain widely used in bread and pasta. It was developed the 19th century by crossing wheat with rye (a conventional, selective breeding approach). However, the resulting hybrid is sterile, and in the 1930s, the chemical colchicine was used to generate polyploid embryo cells, which are fertile. Triticale would seem unambiguous to fit the definition of a GMO, even if the genetic modification is somewhat primitive by current molecularly biological standards. Thus, Oliver suggests “biotechnologically modified organism” as a closer definition for GMO.

The first genetically modified plants – antibiotic-resistant tobacco and petunias – were produced by three independent research groups in 1983. Scientists in China first commercialized genetically modified tobacco in the early 1990s. In 1994 the US market saw the first genetically modified species of tomato with the property of delayed ripening approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since then, several transgenic crops have received FDA approvals, including “Canola” with modified oil composition, cotton and soybeans resistant to herbicides, etc. GM foods that are available in the market include potatoes, eggplants, strawberries, carrots, and many more are in pipeline.
Do we need GM foods?
Before starting discussing the merits and demerits of GM foods, it is important to set forth why there is such great effort to develop them. There are three major challenges we are facing that motivate our resort to the new technology for help.
Expansion of population
The current global human population is approximately 7.35 billion (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables).  shows the distribution of population around the world (upper panel). Although the growth rate of the world population has slowed in recent years (1.24% per year 10 years ago versus 1.18% per year in recent years), an annual addition of 83 million people is expected. The estimated global population will be 8.5 billion in 2030, and 9.7 billion in 2050. The expansion of population is one of the major contributors to undernourishment around the world. In 2016, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that 795 million people in the world were undernourished, among which 780 million people in developing regions. Therefore the eradication of hunger should be a priority of policy-making.
The question of whether or not humans should eat food from genetically modified organisms – and, therefore, if they should develop and propagate them is clearly not amenable to a simple “yes” or “no”. Indeed, a wise answer comprehends a diverse array of scientific expertise, not only in files of molecular biology, but also in agricultural economics, animal and microbial ecology, food technology, and immunology – a breadth of expertise unlikely to be found in one person. The arguments, pro and con, reverberate the whole history of human technological development, pitting the clear advantages of intended consequence against the mucky possibilities of unintended consequence. One needs to think only of the fossil-fueled industrial revolution versus global warming. Or of that much-heralding replacement for fossil fuel, nuclear power generation, versus Tokushima. Certainly, many of the risks of GM crops, noted above, are speculative, but they are scientifically plausible and offered in good faith. Ignoring them in the euphoria of immediate advantage is equally unscientific.

Drawing from past experience it seems unlikely the technological momentum toward genetically modified foods can be stopped dead in its tracks. Or should be. The immediate advantages are too tangible to ignore or set aside out of fear of the unknown and unintended disadvantages. With un-Hamlet-like indecisiveness, we suggest evaluating, gingerly, and always with keen (and collective) circumspection toward the first signs of problems.
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