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The World Around Us: The Environment


How does the environment shape human health, and how can we reimagine science and health care while preserving the world around us?

We will discuss how the ever-changing environment shapes our health, modifies our disease risk, and affects our general well-being, as well as new approaches and tools to improve human health in ways that protect our natural resources and do not pollute our environment.

We live within an ever-changing environment that plays a key role in shaping our health, modifying our disease risk, and affecting our general well-being. Prior to birth, the mother forms the environment for the developing fetus. After birth, the climate, the quality of our air, water, and nutrients, and physical, chemical, and radiation exposures can cause a wide range of health issues across a human lifespan. These factors may also worsen poverty, discrimination, and violence, rendering women and minorities more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental exposure and potentiating health disparities.


Air pollution is a most significant environmental hazard that can affect reproductive and pregnancy health. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to increased rates of infertility, miscarriage, substandard fetal growth, premature birth, and even stillbirth. Women across the world may spend more time indoors, exposed to air particles from household cooking, increasing the risk of allergies, respiratory infections, heart disease, and even cancer. Climate change can burden women by increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses, extreme weather, and food insecurity. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide increase the risk for global warming and pollution, and thus increase the risk of malnutrition and shortening lifespans. These can also negatively impact maternal and fetal health, with exposure to extreme heat increasing the risk of preterm birth and stillbirth.


Water pollution has negative effects on reproductive health and pregnancy outcomes. Exposure to contaminated water sources can increase the risk of miscarriage, with waterborne pathogens causing preterm labor. When women are exposed to contaminated well water they may be at a greater risk of gastrointestinal infections and cancer. Chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, and endocrine disruptors can also affect reproduction and pregnancy health outcomes. These can lead to hormonal imbalances, risking fertility, adversely affecting development during pregnancy, and increasing the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and developmental delays. Women may be more exposed to cleaning products or personal care chemicals that may impact health as well.


Regrettably, irresponsible use of our resources worsens our environment, thus destabilizing our climate and increasing disease risk. Rapid food production requires antibiotics and nitrogen fertilizers and leaves downstream blooms that jeopardize ocean life. Microscopic plastics can now be found in nearly all forms of life. Even our own health care industry is an important contributor to our greenhouse gas emissions.


We must develop new approaches and tools to improve human health in a way that does not cause harm to our environment, protects our natural resources, and thus preserves human health. Energy experts are already demonstrating that we can preserve our lifestyle and power this country using technology that preserves our environment. Reimagining the way we do science and healthcare requires intellectual rigor, a new focus, and valuing the world around us. Our discussions of “The World Around Us” will address our interaction with our environment, current risks affecting the health of women and their progeny, and what we can do about it in the research and implementation spheres.