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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Health and The Environment

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that “13 million deaths annually and nearly a quarter of all disease worldwide… are due to environmental causes that could be avoided or prevented. Doing your part to take care of the environment helps you protect yourself and others from the effects of serious health issues”… including asthma, cardiovascular disease and stroke. They provide a number of ways to “incorporate sustainability into your lifestyle” to help avoid these risks by being mindful in our choices regarding food, transportation, home energy, consumer products, and electronics.

Lecture/Discussion Topics

Urban Lifestyles

Industrialized lifestyles are very far removed from the environments in which human ancestors evolved, and include a variety of stressors that are adversely impacting health. For instance, sleep deprivation due to continuous light exposure (including from television, computer, and phone screens) and urban noise have serious effects on cognitive ability (attention, learning, memory), elevated stress hormones, aggression, and increased risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and mortality (Orzeł-Gryglewska, 2010).

Environmental Health Risks of Transporting Fossil Fuels

In addition to the climate changing effects and air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels, transporting them creates a variety of environmental health risks, i.e., environmental factors such as pollution that can cause “premature death and avoidable illness and disability (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).  Escalating consumer demand for oil, especially in the U.S., involves increasing transportation from Canadian oil fields, and headlines such as the following are becoming more common:

“A train hauling millions of pounds of crude oil derailed” in West Virginia, polluting the air and water supplies (Heyman & Pérez-Peña, 2015).  A train “with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded… killing at least 13 people” in Quebec (Revkin, 2013). “Residents of a small North Dakota town felt their houses shake and were hit by the intense heat of an explosion after a train carrying crude oil derailed”  (Rocked, 2014).

Consequently, there are a variety of adverse health impacts of transporting coal and oil. In addition to the direct mortality associated with accidents, the health risks range from respiratory ailments to cancer to developmental disabilities that affect children’s learning, memory, attention, and overall academic performance. Additionally, coal dust, combustion emissions, and diesel particulate matter are all significant water, air and soil pollutants, affecting fisheries, recreation, and agriculture in addition to human health.

Specifically, coal dust and combustion emissions contain toxic heavy metals; they’re the largest source of mercury pollution, which is highly poisonous to virtually all physiological systems. These pollutants are associated with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, malignancies, and neuro-developmental disorders.

Diesel particulate matter expelled from coal and oil trains (that’s invisible) is associated with:

  • impaired pulmonary development in adolescents;
  • increased severity and frequency of asthma attacks, ER visits, and hospital admissions;
  • increased rates of heart attacks in adults; and
  • increased risk for various types of cancer.

In 2010, particulate matter resulted in 3.1 million premature deaths (energy use accounts for more than 80% of particulate matter).

Even the increased noise pollution from trains transporting coal and oil increases risk for

  • cardiovascular disease;
  • cognitive impairments in children; and
  • sleep disturbance, resulting in many serious problems: impaired memory, learning, and attention; heightened aggression; increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; and shortened lifespan.


Standard American Diet

Students could keep a food journal for one week, documenting all meals, snacks, and beverages; their ingredients (e.g., high fructose corn syrup, additives, preservatives); the packaging (plastic containing endocrine disruptors?) and the source (how far did the food travel?). Students could also record how they felt (energy level; irritability). Ask students to conduct research on at least one potentially problematic ingredient that they frequently ingest. How might a particular additive be impacting their current health? What outcomes might they experience in the future (diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, etc.)? Does this information motivate them to reconsider their dietary choices? Why/not? Do they recognize being caught in a contingency trap (i.e., short-term enjoyment trumping longer-term health risks)?


Sleep Deprivation Assessment

There are a number of environmental reasons for sleep deprivation, and a variety of associated adverse health outcomes. Students can answer the following questions to determine if they are sleep deprived or have sleeping problems, although note that such surveys do not substitute for a medical evaluation from a qualified professional.

  1. On an average night, do you feel like you get a “good night’s sleep”?
  2. Do you feel sleepy during the day?
  3. Do you fall asleep during class or while watching TV?
  4. Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?
  5. Are you irritable or short-tempered?
  6. Do you have difficulty concentrating?
  7. Do you have an irregular schedule (i.e., going to bed and/or waking up at different times)?




Many people have fairly narrow conceptions of what constitutes a pesticide. “Pest” is not a biological category like “mammal”; rather, the term refers to any creature or plant that humans find annoying (insects, weeds, rodents, molds, mosses, etc). Pesticides are intentionally designed to kill that species, but the mechanisms that create toxicity are likely relevant to human physiology. On the other hand, certain pests can themselves cause and spread a variety of diseases (i.e., insects, rodents). Ask students to a) choose a particular class of pesticide (particularly insecticides, herbicides, or rodenticides); b) identify the known and suspected human health risks; c) identify the problems associated with allowing the pest to go unchecked; and d) research less-toxic methods for controlling the pest.  Alternatively, some students could present the problems with the pesticide; another group of students could present the problems with the pest. Then have a general discussion about the relative risks, and how to make a reasoned decision about the use of pesticides.


Superfund Sites

Have students look into Superfund sites – what are they; why was the fund created; what sites are located near campus or where students grew up (see the interactive map and EPA Superfund Site); what are the pros and cons to the Superfund system (i.e., is it an effective way to protect public health)?


Websites: Environmental Health

Many organizations are working to reduce the planetary (including human) health risks associated with contemporary environments. The following are some examples.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “13 million deaths annually and nearly a quarter of all disease worldwide… are due to environmental causes that could be avoided or prevented. Doing your part to take care of the environment helps you protect yourself and others from the effects of serious health issues.” They provide a number of ways to “incorporate sustainability into your lifestyle” to help avoid these risks.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has links to information, research, and videos about several classes of chemicals or factors in the environment that may cause adverse human health effects, including air and water pollution, BPA, heavy metals, and pesticides.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is committed to reducing/eliminating environmental toxicants, as well as addressing climate change.

The Physicians for Social Responsibility site offers a variety of resources on health threats, including those related to climate change, fracking, and toxic chemicals.

Multimedia: Climate Change and Health

Film: The Health Impacts of Climate Change

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) produced a 3 minute (2017) video on health and climate change.

Website and Film: Health and Climate Change

A short film (2015, 3 min) and report by The Lancet Climate Commission on Health and Climate Change provides an overview of the direct and indirect health impacts of climate change. The Commission concludes that responding to climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

Website: The Global Climate & Health Alliance

Working to “tackle climate change and to protect and promote public health,” The Global Climate & Health Alliance offers news, resources, and events to get involved in and learn more about.

Multimedia: Environmental (In)justice

Website: Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Robert Bullard is considered the “Father of Environmental Justice,” and hosts a website that is rich with articles and books relevant to any discussion of environmental justice issues.

Film: Greening the Ghetto

The Ted Talk, Greening the Ghetto, by Majora Carter, (2006; 18:26), is an inspirational and powerful example of an urban community revitalization effort to overcome environmental injustice in the South Bronx, including the disproportionate health risks to communities of color.

Podcasts: Public Health Impacts of Fracking

Several short podcast episodes on the health impacts of fracking are available at TEDx: The Endocrine Disruption Exchange.

Multimedia: Light Pollution

Website: Globe At Night – Light Pollution

Light pollution is ambient illumination coming from streetlamps, headlights, airports, public buildings, and other sources that cast light upward or sideways, brightening the night sky. Light pollution has expanded well beyond urban areas, and it poses significant health risks to humans (e.g., Haim & Portnov, 2013) and other species (Rich & Longcore, 2005). The Globe at Night is an international campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to the website from a computer or smart phone.

Film: The City Dark

The City Dark (2011, 60 min.)  This documentary explores the physiological and psychological consequences of light pollution.

Multimedia: Toxicants

Website: The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has links to information, research, and videos about several classes of chemicals or factors in the environment that may cause adverse human health effects, including air and water pollution, BPA, heavy metals, and pesticides.

Website: Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory

Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory offers a comprehensive list of the “all existing chemical substances manufactured, processed, or imported in the United States that do not qualify for an exemption or exclusion under TSCA.”

Website: Kids and Chemicals

Kids and Chemicals was a documentary that Bill Moyers produced in 2002; The website includes a variety of relevant classroom resources.

Films on industrial food production and planetary and human health

Suggested Readings for Students

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (2018). Hydraulic Fracturing & Health. NIEHS Health and Education Online.

References Cited In This Section

Barker, D. C., & Bearce, D. H. (2013). End-times theology, the shadow of the future, and public resistance to addressing global climate change. Political Research Quarterly, 66, 267-279. doi: 10.1177/1065912912442243.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). National Center for Environmental Health. Available at

Heyman, D. & Pérez-Peña, R. (2015, Feb. 17). Spilled oil keeps flames burning after a train derailment in West Virginia. The New York Times. 

Orzeł-Gryglewska, J. (2010). Consequences of sleep deprivation. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 23(1), 95-114. doi: 10.2478/v10001-010-0004-9

Revkin, A. C. (2013, July 8). The long chain of responsibility behind an oily and deadly train wreck. The New York Times. 

Rocked by New Year’s apocalypse (2014, 1/1). The Daily Telegraph (Australia).