Sick people are worse for the environment, a study shows

Photo by ryan harvey

Environmental degradation is widely recognized to contribute to human illness. However, little research has been done to investigate the impact of human illness on the environment. This is a critical question particularly for the millions of people around the world who depend on natural resources for food and income while coping with high burdens of infectious diseases.

When people are sick, they often alter their use of natural resources in ways that harm the environment, according to a new study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, the researchers examined how illness influenced fishing practices in the community around Lake Victoria, Kenya, which has high rates of HIV and other illnesses. They interviewed about 300 households several times over 16 months, collecting and analyzing data about household fishing habits and mental and physical health. They found that healthy people are better for the environment.

“Studies suggest that people will spend less time on their livelihoods when they are sick, but we didn’t see that trend in our study. Instead, we saw a shift toward more destructive fishing methods when people were ill,” said lead author Kathryn Fiorella, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University, in a recent news release.

The study found that sick fishermen were less likely to legally fish in deep waters or overnight to target the more sustainable mature fish. Instead, they used destructive fishing methods that were concentrated along the shoreline — such as using a beach dragnet that captures a high proportion of juvenile fish and disturbs shallow fish breeding habits.

Basically, sick fishermen just wanted to get their catch quickly with less energy. They were focused on their short-term goal and not worried about depleting the fish stock.

In light of this study, the authors suggest that institutions and organizations focused on protecting the environment may need to more deeply consider the health of communities. The paper concludes, “Our study emphasizes the importance of considering health, governance, and ecosystems through an integrative lens.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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