Virtual NC Sustainability:

Human Health AHD Process Diagram

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Why is the occurrence of illness in a population related to sustainability?

One of the most salient aspects of human health is illness, whether from communicable or non-communicable diseases. Not only does illness reduce immediate quality of life, the occurrence of illness in a population can pose threat to economic vitality by reducing the available workforce and raising medical costs. In fact, one study found the average cost of illness to employers was $3700 per employee per year in 1999. (1)


What are the differences between communicable and non-communicable diseases?

Communicable diseases include viruses and bacterial infections, and can range from the common cold to deadly meningitis. These are diseases that are spread from person-to-person contact, either directly or through some vector. Non-communicable diseases include cancer, asthma, mental illnesses, and other diseases, like atherosclerosis, that cannot be "caught" from exposure to affected individuals. Some of these illnesses in either category can be caused or exacerbated by stimuli in the environment. For example, long-term exposure to coal dust from working in a mine is an example of a high-risk activity that can cause acute cases of lung disease and cancer. However, something as deceptively safe as an office building could pose a risk to asthma-prone individuals due to poor ventilation or outdated insulation materials.
In this manner, diseases can serve as indicators of environmental pollutants. From the economic point of view, a higher incidence of non-communicable and communicable diseases can result in decreased productivity and higher internal costs from worker compensation and health insurance plans.

Access to health care is also important to consider. If people have access to preventative care, they are less likely to need expensive long term treatment for major illnesses, like with early detection for cancer, as well as avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. In this way illness serves as an indicator of social justice. Instances of preventable diseases like heart disease or type II diabetes can be a result of personal choices members of a community make, and can be affected by external factors like walkability or the amount of recreation space available to citizens, may also show discrepancies between demographic groups.


(1) from Goetzel, Ron Z. PhD; Hawkins, Kevin PhD; Ozminkowski, Ronald J. PhD; Wang, Shaohung PhD. The Health and Productivity Cost Burden of the Top 10 Physical and Mental Health Conditions Affecting Six Large U.S. Employers in 1999, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: Volume 45(1) January 2003 pp 5-14, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.





UNC Chapel Hill: Enst 94/Envr 95 Capstone, Fall 2005

Last Updated: December 17, 2005 (K.N.Baer)