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Health and the environment

Good health and well-being require a clean and harmonious environment in which physical, physiological, social and aesthetic factors are all given their due importance.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health status depends on:

  • level of socioeconomic development (50–60 percent);
  • genetic factors (15–20 percent);
  • environmental factors (20–30 percent); and
  • healthcare systems (10–15 percent).

Indoors or outdoors, at home, work or school, human beings are exposed to a variety of environmental factors in the air, water or soil, and in food and other materials, via contact with the skin or inhalation. 

Changes in lifestyle have had a tremendous impact. Obesity due to the over-consumption of food is now common, with over 300 million people affected worldwide. The impacts of environmental damage also affect human health. Although occasional contact with a contaminant may have negligible effects, prolonged exposure can result in serious health problems.

Many impacts on health are delayed. Some types of cancer, for example, have a latency period of 20 years or more. An individual’s physical reaction to a particular environmental hazard often depends on their personal susceptibility, including their genetic makeup. The effects of air pollution on the respiratory system are very different in people with asthma, for example, than in healthy individuals. Activity levels also affect the extent to which exposure to a particular environmental factor is harmful.

Children who play in a sandpit contaminated with lead, or cyclists on heavily polluted roads are at increased risk of developing health problems. Many diseases are caused by a combination of factors — socioeconomic circumstances, lifestyle, diet etc. — which makes it difficult to isolate the specific cause of a disease.


Air pollution and health

A large proportion of the population is affected by polluted air, especially in urban areas.

  • The number of people suffering from respiratory problems (such as asthma and bronchitis) rises sharply when specific exposure levels are exceeded. Severe respiratory problems can lead to hospitalisation and may even be fatal. 
  • In the dustiest European cities, 23 percent of asthma cases are associated with prolonged exposure to high concentrations of particulates.
  • Various respiratory problems, some requiring hospitalisation, are thought to be related to ambient air pollution characterised by elevated levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
  • The risk of respiratory disease increases by 20 percent with exposure to nitrogen dioxide, which is associated with the use of unvented gas stoves.
  • The risk of respiratory disease is 50 to 100 percent higher among infants whose mothers smoke at home.
  • Some components of urban or indoor air pollution may increase the risk of cancer. Asbestos, benzene and soot, for example, are classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • There is evidence of increased lung cancer risk among populations living in the vicinity of certain types of industrial facilities, in particular non-ferrous smelters, which may produce arsenic emissions.
  • Exhaust gases from diesel engines have been found to account for 78 percent of the total added risk of cancer from all hazardous pollutants in the outdoor air in the United States. These emissions come from diesel vehicles on the roads, such as cars, buses and heavy goods vehicles, as well as from bulldozers and construction machinery.


Contaminated food and water

  • Drinking water and food contaminated with microbiological agents can cause a variety of communicable diseases, such as hepatitis A, salmonellosis or shigellosis.
  • Microbiological contamination of bathing water, mainly in the Mediterranean region, is estimated to result in more than 2 million cases of gastrointestinal disease annually.
  • Nitrate concentrations in groundwater in several areas across Europe where intensive agriculture is practised have been found to exceed the guideline levels recommended to protect infants from life-threatening diseases such as methemoglobinemia.
  • Exposure to arsenic in drinking water can lead to health problems such as skin cancer.


Lead — In various locations in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), mainly around lead-emitting industries, people are exposed to very high levels of lead, which can result in impaired mental development and behavioural problems among children. Estimates indicate that at least 400,000 children are affected in CEE.

Radon — Miners and people living in areas with high levels of radon, a source of ionising radiation, are exposed to health risks. About 2 million people in Europe may be affected by radon.

Ultraviolet radiation — Test results show that ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer and cataracts and can weaken the body’s immune system.

Waste — The collection, disposal and treatment of waste may pose health threats, as waste often contains hazardous chemical, biological and physical agents. The environment surrounding a landfill site can be contaminated by emissions to the ambient air or via the leaching of pollutants into surface water and groundwater.

Housing conditions — Poor sanitary conditions and the lack of a centralised water supply are the most significant factors affecting health, as they increase the risk of communicable diseases. The most common indoor air pollutants are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide (produced by indoor combustion sources), tobacco smoke, volatile organic compounds emitted from building materials (paints and cleaning agents) and asbestos. Insufficient ventilation is another hazard and can result in both hypothermia and hyperthermia, as well as indoor air pollution. Physical or physiological discomfort and stress can be caused by a variety of factors, including excessive noise, which is estimated to affect one in four Europeans. These factors are related to poor housing conditions and/or inappropriate urban planning and development.

Road accidents — Around 350 people are killed on Europe's roads each day, and more than 6,300 are injured. Road accidents are now the principal cause of death among people between 15 and 24 years old. Road safety must therefore be regarded as a public health issue. Although accidents cannot be attributed directly to environmental factors, road safety — like air pollution — can be considered a transport problem, and therefore part of the larger issue of human health and the environment. By addressing transport, environment and health issues together, decision makers have the opportunity to identify comprehensive approaches. Preventive measures in these fields represent major advances in public health.

Respiratory diseases account for 70 percent of serious health problems among all age groups in Belarus, with 30 percent of cases caused by poor air quality. Injury, poisoning and the consequences of other external causes occupy second place, among both children and adults. Skin diseases and related ailments are the third most prevalent health problem, including among adolescents and children.

Infectious and parasitic diseases account for 5.1 percent of health problems, and poisoning for 4.9 percent. Diseases affecting the skin and subcutaneous tissue account for 3.9 percent, while digestive disorders and eye diseases account for 3.5 and 2.8 percent respectively.

Diseases of the circulatory system account for 55 percent of deaths with known causes in Belarus, while 13.6 percent of deaths can be attributed to tumours.


Air pollution

  • Most people in Belarus live in towns and cities. Living at some distance from a smokestack or main road is no guarantee of clean air.
  • Although the air pollution index (API) for cities in Belarus is quite low (average 4.4 API), high levels of air pollution have been observed in Gomel (9.1 API) and Rechica (9.0 API).
  • Excessive amounts of airborne formaldehyde have been registered in Babruysk, Brest, Minsk, Svietlahorsk and Vitebsk.

Water pollution
  • Contaminated water bodies pose a real threat to public health, thus it is very important to maintain or restore their sanitary status.
  • In many towns and cities in Belarus, water samples from sources used for drinking water supply do not meet hygienic standards.
  • Bacterial contamination of water is one reason for the increase in acute intestinal infections, such as the outbreak that occurred in the village of Husevitsa (Buda-Koshelevo district, Gomel region) in January–February 2003, when a total of 97 people became ill. In 2003 as a whole, there were 14,743 cases of acute intestinal infection in Belarus, down by 1,644 from 2002.
  • A number of water bodies are off-limits to swimmers during summer months due to microbiological contamination. In Minsk, Lakes Vyacha, Stayki and Komsomol, as well as the Drazdy area, are regularly closed to swimmers for short periods.


Food safety

In recent years, the quality and safety of food produced in the country have improved. In 2003, over 150,000 food samples were investigated for the presence of chemical pollutants. Just over 1 percent of the samples did not meet hygienic standards, compared to 15 percent in 2002.


Radiation monitoring

  • The proportion of basic food samples in which national permissible levels of radionuclides are exceeded has decreased. Real values for caesium-137 (Cs-137) did not exceed 37 becquerel per litre (Bq/l) in 99 percent of milk samples taken from the public sector (the acceptable level being 100 Bq/l). In 98.8 percent of beef samples taken from the public sector, Cs-137 did not exceed 100 Bq/kg (the acceptable level being 500 Bq/kg).
  • Excess radionuclides have been found in milk, meat, potatoes and canned vegetables from small private farms. In 2003, a total of 216 settlements in the Brest, Gomel, Mogilev, Minsk and Grodno regions were identified as producing food that did not meet the standards for Cs-137 content, although the number of villages had been 35 percent higher in 2001.


Physical factors

Noise, vibrations and electromagnetic radiation also affect human health. Studies indicate that between 15 and 35 percent of the population of the cities of Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev and Babruysk suffer from acoustic discomfort. High levels of exposure to low-frequency electromagnetic radiation can damage the nervous, cardiovascular and endocrine systems.


Health protection

Belarus has developed the programme "For the Health of the Nation" and has implemented national action plans for hygiene and environmental protection. The public authorities have also tightened control over the quality of drinking water and food. However, the health of each individual depends greatly on their lifestyle, a balanced diet, and an appropriate balance between work and recreation.

Although the overall number of regular drug users in Belarus is not high, drug use is most common among young people and students. Anonymous surveys conducted in the country suggest that up to 30 percent of teenagers in Belarus have experimented with various drugs.

Belarus has extremely severe penalties for all types of drug possession and trafficking, thus drug use is kept well out of the public view. As the purchasing of hard drugs is a serious criminal offence, the domestic cultivation of plant-based drugs for personal consumption is becoming increasingly common. Surplus drugs tend to circulate among friends and personal connections.

Drug use is spread throughout the country, although it is most highly concentrated in large industrial areas. Drugs trafficked into the country originate primarily from Russia and Ukraine. The most common drugs used in Belarus are described below.


Amphetamines

  • Amphetamines are synthesised chemicals that have a stimulating effect on the nervous system. They include Dexedrine, Bifetamin, Ritalin, Prelyudin and Mefedrin, and come in capsule or tablet form. The prolonged use of amphetamines, or taking large doses in combination with sleeping pills, can be very dangerous. They are especially harmful — even in small quantities — when taken with alcohol. Their use may result in inadequate self-assessment of one's actions and driving abilities, loss of coordination, narcotic poisoning or suicidal tendencies.
  • Methamphetamine is a derivative of amphetamine. It has the same effect on the central nervous system as amphetamines, but it enters the brain far more quickly and is far more highly addictive.
  • Amphetamines are available legally but are often distributed illegally through criminal channels. The availability of amphetamines leads to high levels of abuse. Some people mistakenly believe that stimulants increase their efficiency and creativity at work, leading them to ignore the physical and mental risks.


Opiates

Opiates directly depress the central nervous system. They are prepared from the juice of the opium poppy and are mainly found in the form of three drugs:

  • Heroin, a white or brown powder that is injected, sniffed or smoked.
  • Morphine, a white crystalline powder, tablets or ampoules, usually taken intravenously or swallowed.
  • Codeine, produced in the form of a dark liquid of varying viscosity, or in the form of capsules or tablets, usually taken intravenously or swallowed.

Morphine and codeine are often prescribed by doctors as analgesics. The physical effects of opiates depend on the drug, its dosage and the method of administration. They may include a brief state of euphoria followed by drowsiness; slowed heartbeat and breathing; decreased brain activity; loss of appetite, thirst, sexual desire and reflexes; and a higher pain threshold.

Risks associated with the use of opiates include AIDS, blood poisoning and hepatitis resulting from injections and the use of non-sterilised or shared needles; death as a result of using crude heroin; death from overdose; and opiate addiction (especially heroin), which develops rapidly.


Opioids (methadone)

Opioids are surrogate synthetic opiate drugs that are not derived from opium but have a similar effect. Opioids include Darvon, Demerol, methadone and meperidine. Methadone is officially prescribed for the treatment of heroin addiction, although it also causes tolerance and dependence. The effects of methadone last much longer than those of morphine-based drugs. Opioid use may lead to tolerance and dependence. Withdrawal symptoms develop far more slowly and are less severe than those related to morphine and heroin, but they continue for longer. Ironically, methadone, which is used to control drug abuse, often appears on the black market. There are also reported cases of fatal methadone overdoses.

The synthetic composite levo-alpha-acetylmethadol or levacetylmethadol (LAAM) (also known by the trade name Orlaam), which is very similar to methadone, was approved as a treatment for drug addiction.


Cocaine and derivatives

  • Cocaine is a white crystalline powder and potent stimulator of organic origin, derived from the leaves of the coca plant. Cocaine is generally inhaled through the nose by means of tubes or straws from a smooth surface such as glass or a mirror. It is often cut with a razor blade into short "lines".
  • Crack is an inexpensive form of purified cocaine, produced in the form of small crumbs or "rocks". Crack is smoked by inhaling the fumes that are released when the drug is heated. It takes effect within 10 seconds and induces a state of euphoria that lasts about 10 or 15 minutes. Crack use very quickly leads to physical and psychological dependence.
  • Freebase cocaine is made by heating regular cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride), which separates the cocaine from its salts. Mixing and heating regular cocaine with sodium bicarbonate and ether is called freebasing. The drug works very intensively and is quickly addictive. The state of euphoria does not last long (5 or 10 minutes) and is very often followed by feelings of depression. This leads to the repeated and increasingly strong desire to smoke again, or to snort cocaine.


These drugs cause a brief but intense feeling of euphoria and increased confidence. They stimulate the central nervous system, quicken the pulse and breathing rates, raise the blood pressure and body temperature, and cause the pupils to dilate. They also lead to increased agitation and anxiety, insomnia and chronic fatigue.

The dangers of cocaine use include bleeding and other damage to the nasal cavity; paranoid psychosis, hallucinations and other mental disorders; impaired motor reflexes; and death from cardiac abnormalities or respiratory arrest. Addiction to cocaine, in the form of both physical and psychological dependence, may occur after only a short period of use. In many cases, the use of crack results in immediate dependence.


Marijuana, hashish

  • Marijuana is derived from the plant Cannabis sativa. Marijuana is usually smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes, packed into a pipe, or added to food.
  • Hashish is a gummy substance, dark brown in colour, which is obtained from the glandular hairs of the cannabis plant.
  • Hash oil is a dark brown liquid extracted from Cannabis plants. Oil is often added to regular cigarettes before smoking.


These drugs may cause euphoria, a sense of carelessness, lack of motivation, incontinence, increased talkativeness, dry mouth and throat, increased appetite, impaired coordination, decreased concentration, memory loss and heart palpitations.

Immediate associated risks include poor learning and work performance; confused thoughts, frustration, depression and feelings of isolation; delayed sexual development and maturation, including adverse effects on sperm production and disruption of the menstrual cycle; and lung and respiratory ailments (smoking one marijuana joint is equivalent to 25 tobacco cigarettes). Large doses can cause hallucinations and paranoia; increased risks to health and safety due to impaired coordination and slowed responses; and dependence.

Marijuana is often classified as a "starter" or "gateway" drug, as some marijuana smokers later turn to harder drugs such as cocaine, LSD and other hallucinogens.


Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens (psychotogenic or psychotomimetic agents) are drugs that distort human sensations, thoughts, emotions and perceptions.
  • Phencyclidine (or PCP) is a synthetic drug that can be in the form of a white crystalline powder or transparent liquid. In both forms PCP is a strong drug and is often taken with marijuana, either smoked or eaten. Cigarettes are sometimes dipped into liquid PCP. The use of PCP results in impaired judgement and awareness, disorientation, confusion and memory loss; extremely unpredictable and sometimes bizarre or violent behaviour; extreme excitement; impaired driving ability; and an increased pain threshold. Even short periods of PCP use can cause schizophrenia-like mental disorders, severe depression and an impaired ability to perceive information. It can trigger violent behaviour leading to injury or even death. Physical dependence on PCP may be accompanied by memory loss, aggressive behaviour, weight loss and paranoia.
  • Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) generally comes in the form of tablets or capsules. It increases visual and auditory perceptions and is a highly effective mood stimulator. Ecstasy is known by a range of names. It is associated with underground dance parties ("raves") where there is no alcohol but an abundance of ecstasy. The use of ecstasy increases the heart rate and may cause overheating and kidney, liver and heart damage. Taking the drug can cause seizures, brain swelling and permanent brain damage, and can kill.
  • Psilocybin is the active ingredient of the Psilocybe mushroom. The mushrooms can be eaten whole or ingested in powder or liquid form. Psilocybin is also synthetically produced.
  • Mescaline is the active ingredient of the Peyote cactus. Mescaline comes in powder, capsule and liquid form and can be inhaled, swallowed and administered intravenously, or taken in the form of brown "mescaline buttons" (the dried seeds of the cactus). Mescaline is also produced synthetically. The drug can cause hallucinations lasting between five and 12 hours.
  • Volatile solvents include glue, nail polish remover, lighter fluid, nitrous oxide, ether, hairspray, insect repellents and cleaning agents, which have psychoactive effects when inhaled. The prolonged use of volatile inhalants may cause sneezing, coughing, runny nose, nosebleeds, nausea, irregular heartbeat, chest pain, loss of coordination and balance, and inability to make decisions. Volatile solvents also cause damage to the liver, brain and nervous system and may lead to loss of consciousness or death from heart failure, respiratory arrest or choking as they displace oxygen from the lungs and depress the nervous system.

Common signs of drug use

A person may be a drug user or addict if they have:

  • the appearance and behaviour of a drunk but do not smell of alcohol;
  • fluctuating moods (talkativeness, aggression, or inappropriate behaviour);
  • unusually dramatic gestures, excessive movements, restlessness or immobility, lethargy or weakness;
  • an unsteady gait with a swinging body, a swaying motion when sitting, possibly with closed eyes, and impaired handwriting;
  • unnatural skin tone (strikingly pale or uncharacteristically red in the face);
  • glassy eyes and/or a glazed expression;
  • severely restricted or dilated pupils that do not react to light;
  • altered salivation (increased saliva or a dry mouth and lips and hoarse voice); or
  • altered speech (rapid, accentuated, dull, slow or slurred).


The information in this section was taken from the following sources:

Further information on public health and the environment can be obtained from the following sources: