How Can We Protect An Ageing Population From The Effects of Environmental Change?

sri-lanka-flood-older-man-carried_246x211By 2050 there will be an unprecedented increase in the number of people aged 55-plus representing nearly a quarter of the global population.

The rise in the numbers of older people is happening more rapidly in developing countries where 60 per cent of the world’s older people currently live, particularly in Asia and Africa.

An ageing population has wide-ranging implications for environment, economy and society. Changes in age structure together with an expanding population, rapid urbanisation and levels of consumption are all placing pressure on the global environment.

This presents challenges in eradicating poverty, ensuring environmental justice and achieving an environmentally sustainable development, especially in the least developed countries of the world.

Acceleration of Global Ageing

The interaction between an ageing population and the environment poses significant challenges and opportunities for public policy.

However, policy makers at the international level have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on this demographic group.

Older people are a diverse group. Some are educated, fit, active and wealthy, have access to most of the goods and services they need and desire and play a key role in caring for themselves and other family members including grandchildren. In contrast, others are poor, frail and require care and financial support.

There are major regional differences, with poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia resulting in many older people in these areas lacking access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and basic health care, making them highly vulnerable to environmental threats.

A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute reviews the key issues relevant to global ageing and environmental change. It examines older people not only in terms of their vulnerability to environmental threats but as potential contributors to environmental sustainability. The study recommend three areas for action if we are protect older people from future environmental change.


Elderly woman with social care assistant

Promoting greener attitudes and behaviours and influencing individual lifestyle choices across the life course are measures that can and should be used to reduce the future and current environmental footprint of older people.

This is particularly important at a time when many rapidly developing countries are seeing an increase in a high-consuming middle-class group who will eventually grow older.

There is an equally important need to engage older people using appropriate approaches such as peer-to-peer approaches which could provide more credibility.

Targeted engagement of older people not only fosters greener behaviours but also responds to their perceived lack of opportunities for social involvement and inter¬action.

Recent studies undertaken on direct interaction with the older age sector on climate change have demonstrated that, used in the appropriate way, it is a headline topic that stimulates lively discussion and debate on many issues related to environment and sustainability

Appropriate infrastructure and incentives that encourages greener behaviours in later life will also be needed. Since there will be a high number of urban seniors, achieving age-friendly cities will be important. In particular, older people require supportive and enabling living environments to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing.

These include walkable outdoor space and accessible public buildings, accessible and affordable public transport, appropriately designed, affordable and energy efficient housing with access to local services, opportunities for social participation and social inclusion, civic participation and employment.



We need policies that reduce the environmental vulnerability of older people and that focus on each part of the dynamic process that creates vulnerability.

These include policies that ensure people reach later life with sufficient reserves (e.g. coping skills, strong family and social ties and savings and assets), reducing the challenges they face in later life, and providing adequate health and social protection.

These factors will be different for older people in the developed and developing world. In developing countries, lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation and health and social care combined with poverty and malnutrition make them vulnerable to environmental threats.

HelpAge International has discussed the need for climate and development strategies to be responsive to the realities of the ageing population and climate change. They suggest without age appropriate action, the effectiveness and success of climate adaption and national development and resilience strategies could be significantly compromised.

HelpAge International outlines ten strategies to coping with an ageing population in a changing climate .

In addition, Help the Aged identified ten basic requirements to make developed world communities better for older people.

These requirements included: adapting new and existing accommodation to suit people of all ages; transport options that meet the needs of all older people; keeping pavements in good repair; provision of public toilets; public seating; good street lighting and clean streets with a police presence; access to shops and services; places to socialise; information and advice; and ensuring older people’s voices are heard on issues from social care to volunteering opportunities.

If we are going to better protect individual countries need to be adopted. Policies that provide social protection, encouraging healthy life¬styles, acquisition of coping skills, strong family and social ties, active interests and, of course, savings and assets, will be important. All will assist in ensuring that people’s reserves are, and remain, strong in later life.


volunteerSeniors’ knowledge of the local environment, its vulnerabilities and how the community responds allows them to play a key role in reducing the environmental impact of disasters. In particular, their knowledge of socio-ecological system and coping mechanisms can in some contexts be critical when developing local disaster risk reduction and adaptation plans .

Growing old in the twenty-first century will bring with it the unique challenge of a changing global environment with variable climate and weather patterns which will impact on all aspects of life. Policies therefore need to be ‘age proofed’ so that they can support older people through their life course.

If we are to prevent and minimise the negative impact of environmental change on older people, there is an urgent need to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment. We need to harness the contribution older people can make to addressing environmental threats, while reducing their vulnerability.

World’s Worst Polluted Places

A report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

t767375aA report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

The 2009 World’s Worst Polluted Places: 12 Cases of Cleanup and Success is the fourth on the state of pollution in some of the world’s worst polluted places published by the Blacksmith Institute. It was compiled from nominations received from around the world. The report includes success stories from Chile, China, Domincan Republic, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Russia and Tanzania.

The success stories come from a range of approaches: old-fashioned techniques (such as the removal and replacement of contaminated soil) and innovative ways to recapture mercury vapours. It also reviews technical methods such as chemical interventions, bioremediation and bioaccumulation, which can involve the use of cow dung, molasses and worms.

dominican_cleanupWhile pollution clean-up needs to be an essential part of an overall framework of environmental management, pollution prevention should be the main objective if the developing world is to deliver the policies for healthy citizens, sustainable development and poverty eradication. It is often the poor and socially marginalised who suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating environmental quality. Therefore the focus should on prevention rather than cure.

There is a growing need in developing countries to determine not only the state of environmental quality but to identify cost-effective measures to protect human health and the environment. Details of success projects such as those highlighted in the report can assist developing countries in achieving better environmental quality. They provide concrete examples of key approaches and mechanisms which have been used to clean-up pollution. They can motivate decision-makers to follow a similar course of action or to adapt a particular approach to local context and circumstances.

However, the efforts to clean-up pollution remains a major problem in the developing world and continues to pose risks to human health. With large numbers of people being affected by traditional sources of pollution such as industrial emissions, poor sanitation, inadequate waste management, contaminated water supplies and exposures to indoor air pollution from biomass fuels. These are particularly severe in large urban areas which have to grapple with simultaneous rapid motorisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, increased population and weak institutional capacity and poor infrastructure. 33777293_1

Risks attributable to environmental pollution in the developing world have been estimated to be 15–35 times greater than in developed countries. The World Health Organization has attempted to assess the global burden of disease as a result of environmental pollution in terms of mortality or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

About 8–9% of the total disease burden may be attributed to pollution, but considerably more in developing countries. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene are seen to be the major sources of exposure, along with indoor air pollution.

Problems of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, for example, account for an estimated 6.6% of DALYs in Africa, and 4.7% in south-east Asia, compared with 0.5% in Europe. Indoor air pollution accounts for 4.4% of DALYs in Africa and 3.6% in south-east Asia, compared to 0.4% in Europe. In absolute terms the differences are even more stark.

The total number of DALYs per head of population attributable to these two risk factors in Africa are 29.1 per thousand for unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene and 19.3 per thousand for indoor air pollution; in south-east Asia they are 12.8 and 9.9 per thousand, respectively; in Europe they are 0.8 and 0.6 per thousand, respectively.

Economic development is often seen as the driving force to improve environmental quality in the developing world. However, a key factor in addressing environmental pollution is political will. While policies on paper may look sophisticated and comprehensive the reality is often different on the ground. That is why ensuring policies are enforced and monitored is paramount to preventing pollution in the first place and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Briggs, D. (2003) Environmental pollution and the global burden of disease, British Medical Bulletin, 68:1-24

© Gary Haq 2009
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The Health Cost of Our Techo-industrial Age

OUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

oilpollutionmaskOUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

Human societies have had an affect on the environment since time immemorial. However, the rate and scale at which we have degraded our environment has increased significantly with industrialisation. In the 1960s Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Since then we have see many products and industrial processes which have had unknown effects on our health and environment from lead additives, radioactive waste, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, tobacco smoke to CFCs and greenhouse gases.

A recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children whose mothers encountered a large amount of air pollution during pregnancy may end up with lower IQs. The study found that those babies whose mothers were exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution from heavy car, truck and bus traffic had IQ scores four to five points below those whose expecting mothers had breathed less polluted air. The results add to growing evidence of how low-dose exposure to every day pollutants can have an impact on developing children.

112053099_8471013d5dIn Corby, Northamptonshire (UK) sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children’s deformities and exposure to poisonous waste caused by the clean-up of a steelworks site which had closed in the 1980s. To reclaim the site the local council demolished old buildings and removed waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry. The dirty and dusty operation exposed 18 pregnant mothers to harmful toxins. This resulted in the children being deformed and having missing fingers. The families may now finally be able to claim compensation for having to suffer the unexpected cost of environmental pollution.

_45748842_jex_354946_de27-1While we have used technology to reduce our the impact of our activities on our health and environment (e.g. catalytic converters to reduce vehicle pollution, desulphurisation units to reduce sulphorus emissions from power stations that cause acid rain) we still have a limited understanding of the health effects of certain production processes and chemicals. There is much to learn about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning fluids and plastic products. For example, concern over “toxic toys” produced in China resulted in toy producers recalling their products.

Those products which we intuitively think are good for are also sometimes questionable. A report by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.

Our lack of understanding of the effect of artificial chemicals and substances on complex systems such as nature and the human body requires us to adopt the precautionary principle and to be fully informed about the risks we are taking. Even then there is no guarantee we will get it right.

As we make further developments in nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and create new chemicals and drugs we need to be mindful of the complexity of the issues we are dealing with and should be guided by nature and natural processes. If we had done this at the beginning of our industrial age then perhaps we would have avoided the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people who were sacrificed for the sake of economic and technological progress.

© Gary Haq 2009