Eye Opening RTE Programme on Living Longer and Healthier Lives

Last week Dr Lara Dungan presented an excellent and revealing  programme in the Eco Eye series.  She discovered that where and how we live, travel and work, the air we breathe, the food we eat, even the packaging that our food comes in, all combine to have a huge impact on our health.  She also suggested ways that we can protect ourselves and our children from everyday environmental pollution.

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Environmental pollutants cause 13 million deaths worldwide each year and in Ireland it costs our health system €2 billion a year. The programme focused on the effects of these pollutants such as air pollution and man-made chemicals and also examined the environmental causes of the obesity epidemic in Ireland.

Dr Lara Dungan, Eco Eye presenter  

The one billion cars in the world are not just contributing to climate change. They spew out noxious gases and particulates. In the programme, experts from Trinity College pointed out that the air pollution from cars contributes to asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. The petrol and more especially the diesel car pollute the air for the driver, cyclists and pedestrians. The conclusion was that we need to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads, use them less and use lower emission cars and of course introduce more electric cars.

The programme also looked at another form of air pollution – one that causes over 1000 deaths per year in Ireland. This pollution is caused by burning solid fuels in our fireplaces. The worst air quality is in our smaller towns – higher than in Dublin.  People lighting solid fuel fires in the evenings pollute the air in their neighbourhood and also within their houses. While it is still legal to burn smoky coal in towns of less than 15,000,   a total countrywide ban on smoky coal is coming into effect later this year. Burning peat and wood can have similar effects on the local air as smoky coal.

If we reduce our burning by 40% – would save more than 500 hundred lives every year and help people who have asthma and similar conditions. A non-polluting option for householders that was suggested was the installation of heat pumps. Retrofitting houses to ensure higher levels of insulation and so lower the requirement for smoky fires can also help.

Exposure to man-made chemicals can have some serious adverse impacts on our health. The programme revealed that a 2014 WHO study linked endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals to numerous diseases and disorders including breast and prostate cancer, IQ loss, genital malformation, and obesity. We are exposed to 110 of these in food packaging, household and cosmetic products. Professor Vyvyan Howard told presenter Lara Dungan that we get these chemicals in food, toothpaste, cosmetics, and household cleaning agents. He went on to point out that in the 1960ss a woman had a one in twenty chance of developing breast cancer. Now unfortunately it is a one in eight chance. He said that exposure to low doses of these chemicals in the foetal period is likely to be significantly increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Professor Howard pointed out that chemicals in pesticides find their way into our bodies. He recommends that if we can we should eat natural and organic produce. In relation to food packaging he said that half of tin food cans have a lacquer on the inside that can leach into the food.

On the subject of cosmetics, Lara Dungan told us that when women use them, they apply up to168 chemicals to their bodies.   Not all cosmetics contain these chemicals. Exposure to chemicals in our environment we were told is costing Ireland over €5 billion a year in health costs. This excludes the human cost. The presenter emphasied  importance of tighter restrictions to protect us from these endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals.

The programme concluded on the role of the environment in contributing to obesity. Professor Donal O’ Shea told us that fifty years ago we were the “lightest” country in Europe but we now are on course to be the “fattest” country in Europe by 2030. The environment of high fat, high salt and high sugar food, the take-aways he pointed out as the major contributors to the problem. He said it is predicted that one third of our population  will have Type 2 Diabetes by 2050 – currently 25% of our 3 year olds are overweight or obese. Prof O’Shea emphasised that we really have to make walking to school, cycling to school and active transport to work a reality as is the case in the Netherlands and Finland.

Presenter Lara Dungan’s overall conclusion was that to protect public health we need to protect the environment and that it is inot just mportant for our health,  it also makes economic sense. We look forward to other programmes in the Eco Eye series which air on RTE One on Tuesdays at 7pm. The programme is produced by Duncan Stewart and is available to watch back on RTE Player.

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