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Learning Environmental Health Lessons From Australia, Sweden, and California

Carole Stonebridge, Senior Research Associate, Health Programs, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
January 18, 2010

Canada could greatly improve the health and well-being of its people by adopting some of the environmental health approaches taken in Australia, Sweden, and California. Critical Steps for Canada: Environmental Health Lessons Across Borders, published for the Conference Board’s Canadian Centre for Environmental Health, examines the approaches of these three jurisdictions for the following reasons:

  • All three make environmental health a priority.
  • They take coordinated approaches and strategic actions.
  • They use a variety of levers—including legislation and regulation, strategies and targets, and education—to address their environmental health challenges.

The findings suggest that a Pan-Canadian Environmental Health Strategy could help Canada align and coordinate actions to build on our existing strengths and to address our environmental health weaknesses.

Health Concerns

Canadians are concerned about the effects of the environment on their health.1 Calls for action to address environmental health in Canada have come from many individuals and groups. While positive steps have been taken in recent years, such as actions to improve monitoring of air and water quality, environmental health issues typically have not received sufficient attention in Canada. In Canada, the current estimate of the environmental burden of disease—the portion of preventable disease attributed to the environment—is 13 per cent. That is significant enough to warrant action.

Lessons From Leading Jurisdictions

Canada can learn the following lessons from each of the three jurisdictions studied in this report:

  • A national strategy in Australia provides a unified, across-government approach to environmental health and has stimulated the development of state-wide projects. Progress is monitored through regular review of the strategy.
  • Health-based environmental objectives and targets in Sweden create focus and a framework for measuring progress. Sweden’s leading environmental health issues are also rigorously researched and reported on to determine what is known, what has been achieved, and what is still to be achieved.
  • California is known for its leading-edge environmental laws, such as fuel standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by passenger vehicles. The state is also developing an environmental health surveillance system for environmentally related chronic diseases. For example, an asthma surveillance system collects data and produces comprehensive reports on asthma rates, severity, and medical care.

A Pan-Canadian Approach

A national environmental health strategy could help Canada align and coordinate actions. The strategy would set clear and achievable goals, objectives, and targets, and ensure that Canada measured, monitored, and reported on them, and supported them with effective legislation and regulations. The efforts in Australia, Sweden, and California demonstrate that national or state leadership and coordinated actions are critical to addressing the key environmental factors that influence overall population health.

The Canadian Centre for Environmental Health—an inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary network of public sector, private sector, and non-profit organizations managed by The Conference Board of Canada—will conduct further work to develop a pan-Canadian approach.

1 A 2008 Ipsos Reid poll of Ontarians, conducted for the Canadian Cancer Society, found that of those concerned about toxic chemicals in their environments, over 80 per cent believed their health was at risk as a result of those toxic chemicals. A July 2009 Harris-Decima poll found that 67 per cent of Canadians believed the environment should be just as much of a priority as the economy.

Carole Stonebridge Carole Stonebridge
Senior Research Associate
Health Programs
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
Critical Steps for Canada: Environmental Health Lessons Across Borders 

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