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Thursday, 19 April 2012

Environmental Assessments - What will happen to the health component?

The new Canadian approach to environmental assessments  (EIA) has already garnished outrage from the environmentalist community and support from the business world.  Where the heck are health professionals in this debate?  Recall  Health and the environment:  Inseparable companions that rapidly became one of this sites most  viewed postings.  

The challenge is that environmental issues are not in the forefront for the health sector except for public health providers, combine this with relative lack of incorporation of health into past environmental assessments and a convergence of concern is occurring.   The ideal project assessment would predict all impacts, positive and negative in advance of implementation of the project.  This applies to any project whether there is an environmental impact or not.  In business it is referred to as a business plan which even health professionals would be familiar with.

Regrettably environmental assessments were initially about protecting the environment, specifically flora and fauna.  It was later that humans were considered part of the fauna.  An inherent assumption that what was weighed was the environmental deterioration against the “obvious” human benefit to be accrued, otherwise why would anyone want to proceed with the project.  Were it not for the voices of Aboriginal peoples whose lands were often negatively impacted by such projects that exploration of the human impact may well have gone unconsidered.

Negative impacts have been documented on culture, social connectedness, addictions, violence, sexually transmitted illnesses and undoubtably others.  Of course there are positive aspects and opportunities as well in such projects that need documentation and assessment.  The tendancy of course that many projects benefit those that are not negatively impacted.  Over time, the need to ensure that those negatively impacted were compensated or benefited has often been built into the project design (local employment, partial ownership, local contracting etc. ), this was more as a method of obtaining support for projects, and the benefactors were at times community decision makers and not all community members. 

Further to this has been the more recent utilization by environmental groups to focus less on the environmental impacts and more on the negative health impacts as rationale for not supporting a project, and presenting an unbalanced view of project impacts which is inconsistent with the intent of a comprehensive impact assessment.
Hence the need and development of processes for health impact assessment (HIA) as a component of EIA.  While some efforts are being made to develop HIA frameworks, they are incompletely developed and inconsistently applied.  

Now, with the culling of agencies involved in EIA processes, the question must be raised about how HIA will be achieved and ensured.   Details on the streamling of the EIA process are just leaking out – check out CBC report on environmental assessments  and count the number of times ‘environment’ is used, and how many times ‘health’ is mentioned.  Hint 27 to zero. 

This is an issue that only a few health organizations have any interest in, and as of yet have not wandered into the debate – the loser are the people who will be negatively impacted.   

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