Are inhabitants of different countries exposed to different risks?

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Different countries are very different with respect to the risks to which their populations are exposed. In the developing countries, the risks are very different from those in highly industrialised developed countries. In rapidly developing countries such as China, the risks are different both from those of the western world and from the developing countries.

Assessment of WHO

The health report of World Health Organisation, “World Health Report 2002” has made a list of the top ten global health risks: undernutrition, unsafe sex, blood pressure, tobacco, alcohol, unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, cholesterol, indoor smoke from solid fuels, iron deficiency, and overweight. These risk factors account for more than two thirds of deaths in the world. Especially in the developing world, a few risk factors explain most of the diseases and premature deaths.

That same report emphasises five important environmental risks: 1) unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, 2) urban air pollution, 3) indoor smoke from solid fuels, 4) lead exposure, and 5) climate change. Thus even with respect to environmental health risks, the largest risks are to be found in the developing countries, not the developed industrial countries. Of these, water/hygiene and indoor smoke were also among the top ten universal health risks.

The most important occupational risks are risk factors for accidental injuries, carcinogens, airborne particulates, ergonomic stressors, and noise. It is noteworthy that there are huge differences in these risks depending on the state of occupational health and workers’ protection in a country. This is not necessarily a well developed area even in all western countries.

Why so big differences between countries?

In western democratic industrial countries, the risks are decreased by strict chemical control and modern production methods, but also the impacts of a vigilant and vigorous media and vociferous public opinion are clear. Commercial enterprises simply cannot afford to make dangerous products or to use dangerous methods.

On the other hand, urbanisation and high population density lead to significant risks, high consumption levels, the need to communicate long distances leading to lots of traffic on the roads. Moreover a high consumption of energy leads to insatiable demands for energy production, high emissions, and huge amounts of waste. All this means that the risks to the individual citizen are relatively small, but the impact on the environment, in general, is quite severe (the so-called ecological footprint). We could take steps to decrease our footprint but imposing these restrictions would be unpopular (cutbacks in traffic, changes to the way we generate energy etc). Therefore air pollutants and greenhouse gases are a major problem and are likely to remain so in future.

In China (and earlier in all the socialist countries in Europe) the environmental impact was limited by the low standard of living and consumption, but on the other hand increased by denial of the risks, poor efficiency and wasteful practices, neglect in implementing rules and legislation (even existing laws were not followed) and large investments in the military as compared with the standard of living of the countries. These factors tend to create huge personal risks, and often simultaneously lead to enormous regional (e.g. sulphate emissions) and large global impacts (e.g. carbon dioxide emissions).

In most developing countries, the risks are decreased by very low consumption levels, in some places also relatively low population densities (there are many exceptions, of course), and the low degree of industrialization. On the other hand, risks are increased by almost non-existent legislation and control measures, corruption, poor training and lack of knowledge about risks, as well as the primary need to feed people at any cost; e.g. the risks of handling pesticides may not be considered as important. All this leads often to huge personal risks (e.g. pesticide poisoning is common in these countries), but their global impact is not significant. The megapolis-cities in the developing world are another issue; their air quality may be terrible because of local use of all sorts of solid fuels and with the roads clogged with gas-guzzling, fume-emitting, ancient cars and motor cycles.

Environmental health risks are very different in different countries. It is typical of the developed industrial countries that they have a major impact on the global environment, and typical of the developing countries that the risks are experienced by the individual and often are very high indeed.

One level up: Here a risk, there a risk, everywhere risks, risks!

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