The environment we live in, both natural and built, plays an important role in our health. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, bushfires and storms can cause health problems, injury, hospitalisations and death. Our built environment, including neighbourhood walkability, access to public transport and air pollution, can influence how and when we do physical activity, and other aspects of our health.
Our health is affected by our environment, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soils and climate that grow our food, and the spaces in which we live and work. Our environment can help us maintain – or create challenges to – good health.
The natural environment underpins human health by providing the ingredients essential to life such as air, food and water. Contact with nature is also important for human wellbeing. Human activities which can contribute to climate change or degrade natural environments and systems, which can in turn affect human health. An example of this is air pollution. It can have short- and long-term impacts on health. In particular, breathing in fine airborne particles, known as PM2.5, is known to worsen a range of respiratory and other chronic diseases (such as coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and increase mortality.
Extreme weather events – such as heatwaves, drought, bushfires, violent storms, heavy rainfall and flooding – can affect a person’s physical and mental health in a variety of ways. For example:
- a person may be injured in a bushfire or a violent storm
- droughts and floods can lead to higher rates of some vector-borne and gastrointestinal diseases
- weather conditions may affect the availability, variety and price of food
- bushfire smoke can cause significant air pollution leading to respiratory problems
- existing health conditions such as heart disease, respiratory conditions, kidney disease and diabetes may be exacerbated by extreme events.
The built environment
The way the places people live are formed and laid out – including whether there is adequate housing, opportunities for exercise, and access to healthy foods – can affect health and wellbeing. When well planned, the built environment – which includes housing, public spaces and transport, water and energy – can protect people’s health and wellbeing and encourage healthy lifestyle behaviours. However, for many people, the built environment can also present barriers to good health.
In Australia, there can be great distances between where people live and where they work. This can lead to greater use of cars, long commutes, and fewer opportunities for physical activity. However, good urban design and planning of suburbs can improve ‘walkability’ for residents. For example, if shops, schools and other services are within a short distance of people’s homes, there are more opportunities to walk to these services.
Thoughtful design can also improve access to green and public open spaces, further supporting physical activity and significantly improving a person’s physical and mental health.
Sales and dispensing of inhalers for shortness of breath increased in bushfire-affected regions.
There was a clear association between poor air quality and emergency department visits for respiratory health in NSW.
In general, fewer people visited a GP when recorded air quality from bushfires was poor.