How does the environment affect society?

Environmental influences on health

The skyscrapers disappear behind a gray veil, cars drive with lights on during the day, many people wear breathing masks: the images of air pollution in Beijing in spring 2014 are terrifying. English-language media have dubbed the smog in the megacity with its around 16 million inhabitants "Airpocalypse", loosely translated: the end of the world through air pollution. There was also heavy smog in Paris in March 2014, and in early April the authorities warned of the air pollution in London.

Human health is closely linked to environmental influences. Clean air, clean drinking water, intact nature - these are the prerequisites for a healthy life. Environmental problems are therefore also health problems. More than a quarter of the people in Germany believe that environmental problems have a major impact on their health. This was the result of a study by the Federal Environment Agency on environmental awareness in 2012.

When environmental problems are taken up in the media, the discussion of possible health risks takes on a correspondingly large space. A few examples from the past few years show that this covers a wide range of topics. In addition to smog, these include, for example, dioxin in food, radioactivity as a result of the reactor accident in Fukushima, legionella in drinking water, the spread of the oak processionary moth and the long-standing discussion about cell phone and increasingly about WLAN radiation.

How big is the impact?

For methodological reasons, it is difficult to quantify how certain environmental factors actually affect health and how great the health hazards are. Because many different factors have an impact on health. In addition to environmental influences, they also include the individual lifestyle and diet. The individual environmental influences are also difficult to separate. They often differ from person to person, for example depending on where someone is most of the time, whether outdoors, in rooms or in vehicles.

Regional communities in cities and in rural areas are nevertheless often affected by similar environmental influences. In addition, there are large-scale changes due to climate change or pollution from the spread of air pollutants. Statistical calculations are carried out in order to evaluate and compare the resulting health problems.

In order to evaluate health risks for larger groups, the so-called burden of disease is often calculated. For the burden of disease, in addition to other values, it is calculated how many years of life of the population in total are lost due to a certain impairment. The calculations include data on the body's pollution, the pollution of water, soil and air, and the frequency of certain diseases.

Such statistical data make it clear that certain environmental problems have a significant impact. Air pollution alone is responsible for seven million premature deaths worldwide every year, according to a study by the World Health Organization from March 2014. The Federal Environment Agency has calculated that an average of 47,000 premature deaths in Germany can be attributed to fine dust pollution every year. This corresponds to a loss of ten years of life per 1,000 inhabitants.

This damage to health also means costs for the health system. So they represent a financial burden on society.

How is the situation in Germany?

The health authorities assume that the pollution of the population in Germany is low overall. However, the main problems are air pollution and noise. In addition, the health effects of many of the chemical substances used today have hardly been researched.

The federal health report nevertheless counts environmental pollution as one of the most important factors influencing health and life expectancy of Germans, alongside the social situation and individual lifestyle. Although more than a quarter of the population feels affected, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to ten percent of health disorders in northern and western Europe can be attributed to environmental influences. The WHO uses a very broad concept of the environment. In addition to aspects such as air and water quality or noise, housing conditions and accidents are also taken into account.

The environmental factors in the narrower sense include the Federal Environment Agency housing and interior furnishings, the air in our environment, drinking water, food and water, as well as everyday items such as clothing and cosmetics. These environmental factors can be contaminated with pollutants or pathogens, or they can be associated with noise or radiation. They act on the human organism via the respiratory tract, the digestive system, the skin or the sensory organs, especially the ear, and can impair health.

The air quality

Breathing clean air is a basic human need. At the same time, humans are responsible for a large part of the pollution. Power plants, road transport, agriculture and industrial production are the main sources of air pollutants.

Especially nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine dust impaired air quality in Germany. The permissible limit values ​​were exceeded in 2013 for both nitrogen dioxide and fine dust. According to calculations by the Federal Environment Agency, the high level of fine dust pollution is responsible for around 47,000 premature deaths. In 2013, exposure to the air pollutant ozone exceeded the limit values ​​at around eight percent of the measuring stations.

Fine dust particles get deep into the airways and lungs with the air we breathe, the smallest particles even from the lungs into the blood and via it into other organs. Long-term exposure to fine dust is associated with various diseases. On the one hand, it increases the risk of chronic diseases in children, such as general impairment of lung function, and on the other hand, acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, are more common.

There is also particular air pollution indoors. Cigarette smoke is one of the most harmful to health. It not only affects smokers themselves, but also other people who are in the same rooms through what is known as passive smoking. Other indoor smoke is also harmful. In some rural areas of Eastern Europe, wood or coal is used for heating and cooking.

Food and water

Microorganisms or chemical substances that cause health problems can enter the body through food and drinking water. In some regions of the world this represents a considerable risk. According to the World Health Organization, more than 4,000 children die every day from the consequences of diarrheal diseases, which are mainly caused by contaminated drinking water and poor hygiene.

In Germany, the quality of the drinking water is usually very good, according to the Federal Environment Agency. The authority points out that microorganisms (or colloquially: germs) can always be found in treated drinking water. These are, for example, algae, bacteria or viruses. By filtering and, in some cases, by disinfection, the pollution is kept so low that the drinking water is usually completely harmless. Under certain circumstances, microorganisms can still cause diseases. Mostly it is a diarrhea pathogen. Bacteria such as legionella or pseudomonads cause problems again and again. For example, they can multiply in pipes inside the house where the drinking water is heated too much. Typical pathogens are also salmonella. They can get into drinking water through human or animal excrement.

Pollutants in food or water can also endanger health. In the past few decades, they have hardly been found in Germany in concentrations that lead directly to symptoms of the disease. However, the long-term effects of substances that are often ingested in small quantities can also lead to health problems. Potential pollutants include heavy metals such as lead. Lead contamination is almost always due to outdated water pipes. Because until around 100 years ago, lead pipes were sometimes used for this. Lead is a neurotoxin and blood toxin that accumulates in the body. It affects the development of intelligence in the first years of life.

In addition, fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture can get into the groundwater. Nitrate from fertilizers in particular is readily soluble in water. It is converted to nitrite in the stomach. This destroys the red blood pigment, which can then no longer transport oxygen. In babies with gastrointestinal infections, this can lead to so-called blue rash. Nitrite also reacts with food components to form nitrosamines, which are considered to be carcinogenic.

Traces of pharmaceuticals are also detected in the groundwater. Your concentration is very low; Whether and to what extent they affect living beings is currently being discussed.

Noise effect

The human sensory organ for sound, the ear, is always active - even during sleep. Sound is called noise if it is disturbing or causes damage. This can happen if it is too strong or if it lasts too long. Brief, strong sound can lead to hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Sound also affects the whole organism by causing physical stress reactions. It activates the nervous and hormonal systems. The consequences can be changes in blood pressure or heart rate. The trigger can already be typical ambient noise that is not perceived as a particular disturbance - for example traffic noise.

Noise is a serious environmental problem in Germany. It is too loud in many cities, including many major roads, railways and near airports. On the roads examined by the Federal Environment Agency alone, 9.5 million people are affected by noise in excess of 55 decibels. At this level, considerable annoyance and disruptions in communication can occur.


Various forms of radiation are repeatedly in public discussion. Radioactive substances are used to generate energy and in medicine, but they also occur in nature. Their radiation can give off energy when it hits the body. If it is high enough, it can lead to severe radiation damage.

Radiation from cell phones and cell phone masts, but also from power supply networks, is known as an electromagnetic field. This type of radiation can also have health consequences. When you talk on the phone with a cell phone, part of the energy of the electromagnetic field is absorbed in the head. According to the current scientific status, the limit values ​​are sufficient to protect against proven health risks. However, there are uncertainties regarding the long-term intensive use of cell phones and the effects on children. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection therefore advises exposure to as little electromagnetic fields as possible.

Optical radiation, especially UV and infrared radiation, is useful and dangerous for people at the same time. The natural source of these rays is the sun. Anyone who is exposed to excessive natural or artificial UV or infrared radiation risks damage to eyes and skin. UV radiation can lead to sunburn, sun allergies, skin aging and skin cancer.

Information on other health-related environmental influences - for example the consequences of climate change - can be found in the teaching materials of the Federal Environment Ministry on the subject of "Environment and Health" for secondary and primary schools.

Environmental protection is health protection

Damage to health due to environmental influences can generally be avoided as far as it is possible to evade these influences. The prerequisites for this are that the harmful influence is known and that the individual possibilities allow it to avoid the environmental influence. Individual precautionary measures for eating and drinking water are easy to implement; however, avoiding air pollutants is much more difficult.

At the same time, environmental pollution is socially unevenly distributed. Most studies show a tendency for people with a low social status to be more exposed to negative environmental influences. Above all, they are more frequently affected by traffic-related health problems such as noise and air pollutants. This is proven, for example, by the data from the environmental surveys carried out by the Federal Environment Agency.

Part of the work of health and environmental authorities such as the Federal Environment Agency is therefore to determine where health-relevant environmental pollution originates. The aim is to prevent negative influences as much as possible.

Related Links

Federal Environment Agency: Health

Federal Office for Radiation Protection: Frequently Asked Questions

Federal Environment Agency: Environment and social situation

Robert Koch Institute: "Health in Germany" (2015)

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