Improving Heart Health with Environmental Services

Improving Heart Health with Environmental Services
By: Hunter G.

As in many families across the country and the world, heart disease has affected the lives of my family members significantly. Of course, there are many factors that can lead to heart disease, several of them being inadequate exercise and the effects of particulate inhalation from air pollution. I grew up in a metropolitan area in northeastern Wisconsin where transportation in almost all respects, is dominated by the automobile. Having a great appreciation for the natural world, I was touched by the realization that the exact geographic location of my hometown used to be a lush riparian forest along a wild and rushing Fox River. The elaborate ecosystem had been displaced over 150 years by a conglomerate system of buildings, roads, locks, paper mills, and above and below ground infrastructure otherwise known as a city. Despite being an athlete with a passion for the outdoors I often found it difficult to thoroughly enjoy outdoor recreation activities in and around the city.

The lack of public green space to participate in recreational activities made it difficult for me to enjoy the exercise I need to keep my heart healthy. Along with the attractive economic and social benefits a city can offer, also come a myriad of latent and direct negative effects resulting mainly in poorer general health for city dwellers. Environmental inequity across communities is a main factor driving the decline in heart health in communities.

Air pollution is a significant human health concern as it can cause coughing, headaches, lung, throat, and eye irritation, respiratory and heart disease, and cancer. It is estimated that about 60,000 people die annually in the United States from the effects of particulate pollution (Franchine 1991). Small particles can have significant health effects because particles less than 5 pm may escape the defense mechanisms of the upper respiratory tract and enter the lungs. Particles less than 0.5 pm may reach and settle in the lung alveoli, remaining for weeks, months or years (Stoker & Seager 1976). This is a significant driver pushing my decision to dedicate my career to promoting a healthy urban forest and improving heart health in urban communities.

Trees can remove air pollution by intercepting particulates and absorbing gaseous pollutants. In 1991, trees in Chicago removed an estimated 17 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), 93 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), 98 tons of nitrogen dioxide (N02), 210 tons of ozone (Oz), and 234 tons of particulate matter less than 10 microns in size (MacPherson et al., 1994). Due to the wide spreading implications of these pollutants, the value of this service is one of the most contested economic figures that attempts to quantify the environmental services the urban forest provides. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the hearts of a community and I question whether hedonic valuation is an appropriate method. I believe it makes much more sense that the highest value for environmental services would occur in areas where the services are most needed, where pollution and health rates are highest.

It is well known that psychological stress can significantly affect heart health. Furthermore, the detrimental effects of psychological distress on mortality are amplified by a low socioeconomic status (Lazzarino 2012). So those people living in poorer areas have a higher propensity to develop poor heart health or heart disease. People living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, categorized by income, education and occupation were associated with a 70 to 90 percent higher risk of coronary disease in white people and a 30 to 50 percent higher risk in African Americans (Diez Roux et al 2001). Also it is interesting to note that disadvantaged communities, living mostly in inner cities are unable to maintain trees on their properties and remain largely underserved as the diminishing return of the positive externalities of urban trees elsewhere in the city fails to produce sufficient benefit for their local environments (Heynen 2003). The lack of urban trees and green spaces within disadvantaged communities creates significant differences among neighborhoods in the physical environment, in the availability and quality of public spaces and recreational facilities and in perceived safety may affect patterns of physical activity (King et al 1992). Surely the effect of undesirable or unattractive scenery within cities reduces a community’s level of activity. Reduced activity due to an undesirable environment certainly has its implications on heart health, heart disease and overall well being.

Research on the aesthetic quality of residential streets has shown that street trees have the single strongest positive influence on scenic quality (MacPherson et al 1994). Already I have noticed my own community making changes to traditional development so that some natural areas are retained for not only aesthetic purposes but also or the environmental services that they provide. However, this is mostly new development which most always becomes medium to high income communities. The problem lies in that environmental services are not evenly distributed across political and socioeconomic lines and are in fact lacking most in the areas the benefits could be appreciated most. With the significant impact that urban trees have on scenic value, air and water quality, psychological well being and heart health, there should be a more conceded effort to promote a healthy urban forest with the notion of improving people’s health in urban communities.

Growing up I was very thankful for experiences I had with members of my family who are no longer here. I am just as thankful for the mentors I had as they sparked many of the interests that I am so passionate for today. I am passionate for people and the environment and have decided early on in my adult life to dedicate the rest of my life to promote both ecological health and human health as one. I study urban forestry and soil science because I hope to work to improve the urban environments we all live in and improve and lengthen people’s lives

Works Cited

Diez Roux, Ana V., Sharon Stein Merkin, Donna Arnett, Lloyd Chambless, Mark Massing, Javier Nieto, Paul Sorlie, Moyses Szyklo, Herman A. Tyroler, and Robert L. Watson. “Neighborhood of Residence and Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease.” New England Journal of Medicine 345 (2001): 99-106. Massachusetts Medical Society. Web. 28 Dec. 2012. .

Franchine, P. 1991. Soot kills 60,000 a year i n U.S., survey shows. Chicago Sun-Times. June 30. Heynen, N. 2003. The scalar production of injustice within the urban forest. Antipode: A Journal of Radical Geography 35 (5): 980–98.

Heynan, Nick, Harold A. Perkins, and Parama Roy. “The Political Ecology of Uneven Urban Green Space: The Impact of Political Economy on Race and Ethnicity on Producing Environmental Inequality in Milwaukee.” Urban Affairs Review 42.3 (2006): 3-25.Sage Publications. Web. 27 Dec. 2012. .

King AC, Blair SN, Bild DE, et al. Determinants of physical activity and interventions in adults.Med Sci Sports Exerc 1992;24:Suppl:S221-S236

Lazzarino A, Hamer M, Stamatakis E, Steptoe A. The Combined Association of Psychological Distress and Socioeconomic Status With All-Cause Mortality: A National Cohort Study. Arch Intern Med. 2012;():1-6. doi:10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.951.

McPherson, E. Gregory; Nowak, David J.; Rowntree, Rowan A. eds. 1994. Chicago’s urban forest ecosystem: results of the Chicago Urban Forest Climate Project. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-186. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 201 p.

Stoker, H. S.; Seager, S. L. 1976. Environmental chemistry: air and water pollution. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company. 231 p