What Are the Environmental Factors That Affect Population Health?


There is a wide range of physical, chemical and social environmental factors that can affect people’s health. These include:

Air pollution – From car exhaust and wildfire smoke to e-cigarettes, the pollutants found in the air — including ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds — can cause or aggravate many health problems. Chronic exposure to some air pollutants can lead to lung disease, heart disease and cancer; acute exposure to some toxins can cause headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and even death.

Water pollution — from the contamination of drinking water by nitrates, phosphates, metals and other chemicals (known as eutrophication) and the toxic effects on aquatic life resulting from excess nitrogen and sulfur (known as acid rain) — can also harm human health. The United Nations Human Rights Council has recognized the right of all individuals to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Other environmental factors that influence health and disease include:

It is challenging to determine the exact environmental causes of disease or illness. The exact reasons can vary from person to person based on the genetic susceptibility to certain diseases, the amount of exposure to environmental hazards and other factors. The environment can be seen on a large geographic scale — looking at, for example, how the health of different nations compares. Early work on spatial patterns of health used aggregate summaries of area-level socioeconomic or race/ethnic composition and measures of residential segregation as proxies for a variety of broadly defined environmental attributes, but this approach raises a number of methodological issues.