The rich are enjoying themselves at the expense of poor people's health

Karen E Smoyer of the University of Alberta, Canada, has been working on the impact of poor environment on the weaker sections of society. During her recent visit to Delhi she spoke to Lian Chawii on the susceptibility of the poor to heat waves in the urban areas of the US

Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

How does pollution affect the poor?
In the developed countries, it is not the poor who are responsible for environmental problems. It is the richer class which owns more than one car per family, who dump their waste in the neighbourhood. Therefore, the rich are enjoying themselves at the expense of poor people's health. Similarly, people in developing countries are using second-hand and outdated technology that has been dumped by the developed countries. The poor are affected in two ways: both by the foreign as well as the mother countries.

Can you cite some examples of how residents living near hazardous waste sites have the highest incidence of cancer?
In the 1950s and 1960s, toxic by-products were found in Love Canal in the us , because chemicals were dumped in it. Similar incidents have taken place in many parts of the world. But it is only after a period of time does the effect of the chemicals show up. As a result, mothers are giving birth to deformed babies. However, it is hard to attribute it to any chemical because of a lack of proper studies.

Are people aware of the link between degraded environment and its effect on health?
The level of awareness differs from country to country. The developed countries can afford to conduct research on their environment. But in most developing countries, this is neglected. This is because they don't have the financial strength as people are worried more about their livelihood than the environment. It has been proved that when the economy improves, environment becomes a serious issue.

You have worked among the people of the lower income group in St Louis, Missouri, USA. Why are these people more susceptible to heat waves?
The poor do not have access to air conditioners, and even if they have, they do not use them because they cannot afford to pay the bills. Many of them live in high-rise buildings, where air circulation is poor because buildings block the flow of air currents.

There are other reasons too. Flats in high-rise buildings are dingy and very close to each other. Warm air entering a flat is trapped because there is not enough space for circulation. Moreover, these buildings are crime-prone and the occupants are forced to keep all doors and windows shut. This aggravates the problem and also leads to a number of respiratory illnesses. These are some of the major reasons why the poor are more susceptible to heat waves.

As a result of unchecked and unplanned development programmes, the people living in cities like Mexico have to endure poor environmental conditions. Do you see the same happening in India?
This problem exists in almost all cities in developing countries. People from the rural areas come to cities in search of employment and for a better life. But the cities are not planned to handle the pressure of an increasing population. These people are then forced to live on the streets making the city unhealthy for everyone. They also suffer from many other ailments in the process.

In such a scenario the governments must anticipate the situation and provide better housing for these people.

What should be the focus of our research on health in the future?
There is a need to initiate research programmes aimed at reducing environment health impacts. The poor should be given access to better sanitation. Since it is difficult to relocate them, efforts must be made to ensure that they do not live in shanty dwellings.

An in-depth study needs to be conducted on the environmental health burden on the poor.

How can countries like India take advantage of their enormous human resource ?
The health sector needs to given prime importance. Education also needs to be taken into consideration. Only then, will there be a healthier and educated population over a period of time. What strikes me most when I look at countries like India and China is that the gap between the rich and poor is increasing day by day.

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