How do people harm the environment

Environmental influences on health

When environmental problems are reported in the media, the discussion of possible dangers to human health takes up a correspondingly large amount of space - whether it is about harmful chemicals in children's toys, air pollution in cities, the spread of the oak processionary moth or the discussion about WiFi and cell phone radiation.

In the meantime, it is often about health hazards that are caused or exacerbated by climate change. These include heat events, the increase in allergenic substances, heavy rain events and floods, as well as the possible spread of new disease carriers.

In a study by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) from 2019, 68 percent of those surveyed rated environmental and climate protection as a very important challenge. Many people think that pollution and the effects of global warming have negative effects on their own health. A third of Germans are of the opinion that environmental pollution and environmental pollutants have a strong or very strong impact on their own health. This is shown by a study, the results of which were announced in early 2021. More than three quarters fear that in the future environmental pollution and environmental pollutants will affect the health of future generations.

How the environment and health are related

The way of life and production, the unrestricted mobility and the enormous energy consumption of the people worldwide do not remain without effects on the environment and thus also on health.

For example, intensive agriculture has a negative impact on the environment through the use of pest control agents (pesticides). Numerous animal and plant species are declining or are threatened. In addition, agriculture and animal husbandry, which use pesticides and fertilizers, create problems for soil and water. Pesticide and fertilizer residues, including manure from animal husbandry, end up in the groundwater, where they pose a health risk. Some pesticides are suspected of causing diseases such as cancer or Parkinson's.

The oceans and other bodies of water are also badly affected by environmental pollution. Large amounts of plastic swim in them. It often ends up in the stomachs of marine animals, which die from them, or it enters the food chain in the form of microplastics. See also the topics of the week Plastic Waste: The end of the line? and microplastics in inland waters.

Climate change brings further health threats with it. These include the occurrence of extreme heat, an increase in allergenic substances or heavy rain events and floods. According to a study published in the science journal "The Lancet" in 2020, around 20,000 people died in Germany in 2018 in connection with heat. After China and India, Germany had the most heat deaths worldwide. See also the topic of the week climate change and health.

Another example of the relationship between the environment and health is the emergence of zoonoses, i.e. diseases that spread from animals to humans. This also includes the novel coronavirus, which is believed to have been transmitted to humans by bats. The change and destruction of natural habitats, the penetration of humans into these habitats, the loss of biodiversity and the close contact between humans and wild animals all promote the development of zoonoses. SARS, MERS and Ebola are also zoonoses. See the topic of the week Zoonoses: When environmental crises lead to health crises.

Social developments and technical progress mean that people are exposed to harmful environmental impacts such as noise or air pollution. The global increase in the population in cities also causes health problems if, for example, the infrastructure does not grow with it and the hygienic conditions deteriorate, for example because there is a lack of drinking water supply or sewage systems.

How big is the impact?

For methodological reasons, it is difficult to quantify exactly how certain environmental factors actually affect health and how great the health risks are, because many different factors have an impact on health. In addition to environmental influences, they also include the individual lifestyle and diet. The individual environmental influences also often differ from person to person, for example depending on where someone spends most of their time, for example outdoors, in rooms or in vehicles.

Regional communities in cities and in rural areas are nevertheless often affected by similar environmental influences. In addition, there are large-scale changes due to climate change or pollution from the spread of air pollutants.

Statistical data shows that certain environmental problems have significant health effects. Air pollution alone is responsible for seven million premature deaths worldwide every year, according to a study by the World Health Organization from March 2014. Estimates by the World Health Organization from 2018 show that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe air that contains high concentrations of pollutants.

This damage to health also means costs for the health system. So they represent a financial burden on society.

How is the situation in Germany?

The health authorities assume that the pollution of the population in Germany is low overall. However, that does not mean that there are no health hazards. Air pollution and noise in particular cause problems. In addition, the health effects of many of the chemical substances used today have not been well researched.

The federal health report counts possible pollution from the environment as one of the most important factors influencing the health and life expectancy of Germans, in addition to the social situation and individual lifestyle. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), up to ten percent of health disorders in northern and western Europe can be attributed to environmental influences. In addition to aspects such as air and water quality or noise, the WHO also includes the aspect of living conditions.

The environmental factors in the narrower sense include the Federal Environment Agency housing and interior furnishings, the air in our environment, drinking water, food and water, as well as everyday items such as clothing and cosmetics. These environmental factors can be contaminated with pollutants or pathogens, or they can be associated with noise or radiation. They act on the human organism via the respiratory tract, digestive system, skin and sensory organs and can impair health.

The air quality

Breathing clean air is a basic human need. At the same time, humans are responsible for a large part of the pollution. Power plants, road traffic, agriculture and industrial production, but also wood-burning stoves are the main sources of pollutants in the air. Especially nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine dust affect the air quality in Germany. According to estimates by the European Environment Agency, around 63,100 people died prematurely in Germany in 2018 as a result of fine dust pollution.

Fine dust particles get deep into the airways and lungs with the air we breathe, the smallest particles even from the lungs into the blood and via it into other organs. Long-term exposure to particulate matter increases the risk of chronic diseases, such as general impairment of lung function, on the one hand, and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, are more common on the other. See also the topic of the week air quality in cities.

High air temperatures and intense solar radiation during summer heat waves favor the formation of the air pollutant ozone near the ground. Ozone is an irritant gas. On days with high ozone concentrations, many people suffer from irritation of the eyes (tears), respiratory problems (cough) and headaches.

There is also particular air pollution indoors. Cigarette smoke is one of the most harmful to health. It not only affects smokers themselves, but also other people through what is known as passive smoking. But emissions from chimney fires are also harmful.

Food and water

Microorganisms or chemical substances that cause health problems can enter the body through food and drinking water. According to the WHO, more than 4,000 children worldwide die every day as a result of diarrheal diseases, which are mainly caused by contaminated drinking water and poor hygiene.

According to the Federal Environment Agency, the quality of drinking water in Germany is very good. The pollution of treated drinking water with microorganisms (colloquially: germs) such as algae, bacteria or viruses is therefore kept so low by filtering and disinfection that the drinking water is usually of the highest quality. Bacteria such as legionella in water pipes, which multiply especially at water temperatures between 23 and 45 degrees, cause problems locally again and again.

Pollutants in water or in food can also endanger health. It is true that they are seldom so highly concentrated that they immediately lead to symptoms of the disease. But even in small amounts, they can damage your health over the years. Possible pollutants include toxic heavy metals such as lead, which accumulate in the body. Outdated lead or food water pipes are major sources of lead pollution.

Fertilizers, but also pesticides, can get into the groundwater from agriculture. In particular, nitrate from fertilizers, including manure from animal fattening, is water-soluble. It is converted to nitrite in the stomach. This destroys the red blood pigment, which can then no longer transport oxygen. Nitrite also reacts with food components to form nitrosamines, which are considered to be carcinogenic. See also Topic of the Week Groundwater: Where does the pollution come from?

The nitrate pollution in German groundwater is very high in some regions. This is a problem because more than 70 percent of the drinking water is obtained from the groundwater. If the limit value for nitrate in drinking water is exceeded, the water suppliers have to add unpolluted water, treat the water in a time-consuming and expensive manner in the waterworks or look for a new source.

The use of antibiotics in animal husbandry favors the development of resistance and the spread of multi-resistant bacteria. Such pathogens are insensitive to certain antibiotics. As a result, drugs can lose their effectiveness in sick people, and inflammation in the body can be fatal as a result. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 33,000 people die each year in Europe as a result of antibiotic resistance.

Noise effect

Noise is a serious environmental problem in Germany. It is too loud in many cities, including many major roads, railways and near airports. According to a study by the Federal Environment Agency in 2019, 75 percent of those surveyed feel annoyed by road traffic noise in their residential area. 60 percent of the respondents felt impaired by noise from neighbors, 42% each by air traffic or by industrial and commercial noise.

Noise is defined as noise (acoustic sound) that is perceived as annoying and annoying or that has a negative impact on health and wellbeing. So what noise is also depends on subjective perception and cannot be determined with measuring devices alone. Damage to health can arise if the noise is too loud or lasts too long. Brief, strong sound can lead to hearing loss or persistent noises in the ears (tinnitus). Sound also affects the whole organism by causing physical stress reactions. The consequences can be changes in blood pressure or heart rate. The trigger can already be typical ambient noise that is not perceived as a particular disturbance - for example traffic noise. See also the topic of the week Noise, Slacken.


Time and again, various forms of radiation are the subject of public discussion. One example is the radiation emitted by radioactive substances. Colloquially it is often referred to as "radioactive radiation". Radioactive substances are used to generate energy and in medicine, but they also occur in nature. This radiation is dangerous because it can damage cells in the human body and cause cancer, among other things. The stronger the radiation, the greater the possible damage. See background text How does radioactivity arise and how does it work?

The electromagnetic fields emanating from cell phones and cell phone masts as well as from power supply networks are often referred to as radiation. Cell phones generate these fields directly on the head when telephoning without a hands-free system. According to the current state of scientific knowledge, the internationally established maximum values ​​are sufficient to protect against proven health risks. However, there are still uncertainties such as B. on the effects of long-term intensive use of cell phones and the effect of electromagnetic radiation on children. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection therefore advises exposure to as little electromagnetic fields as possible.

The ultraviolet (UV) radiation is invisible to humans. The sun is the natural source of UV radiation. It is useful and dangerous to humans at the same time. Excessive exposure to UV radiation risks damage to eyes and skin. UV radiation can lead to sunburn, sun allergies, skin aging and skin cancer. To protect yourself, you should stay in the shade or indoors in strong sunlight if possible, wear protective clothing and sunglasses with UV protection and apply a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor to uncovered skin.

What possible solutions are there?

Environmental protection is health protection

Damage to health caused by environmental influences can generally be avoided as far as it is possible to evade these influences. The prerequisites for this are that the harmful influence is known and that the individual possibilities allow it to avoid the environmental influence. Individual precautionary measures when eating and with UV radiation are easy for us in Germany to implement; However, avoiding air pollutants, for example, is much more difficult.

But environmental pollution is socially unevenly distributed. Most studies show a tendency for people with a low social status to be more exposed to negative environmental influences. Above all, they are more frequently affected by traffic-related health problems such as noise and air pollutants. This is proven, for example, by the data from the environmental surveys carried out by the Federal Environment Agency.

Part of the work of health and environmental authorities such as the Federal Environment Agency is therefore to determine where health-relevant environmental pollution originates. The aim is to prevent negative influences as much as possible.

In the coalition agreement of 2018, the federal government agreed to improve and expand noise protection. The noise limit values ​​for road, rail and aircraft are to be further reduced.

With the national water dialogue, the Federal Environment Ministry is campaigning for greater protection of groundwater against the entry of nitrates and pesticides. The federal states and the municipalities are responsible for the implementation of the water regulations. In general, the EU Groundwater Directive applies in Germany, which provides measures to prevent or limit the entry of pollutants into the groundwater.

After the European Court of Justice sued Germany in 2018 for non-implementation of the EU Nitrates Directive and a second case was initiated in 2019, the Federal Government drafted new fertilizer legislation. Since January 2021, it is no longer allowed to use as much fertilizer in areas where the groundwater is heavily polluted with nitrate.

In order to reduce air pollution in cities, to which nitrogen oxides make a significant contribution, measures in particular in road traffic are necessary. The main sources of nitrogen oxides in cities are primarily diesel cars. Only the most modern diesel cars emit significantly less nitrogen oxides. The Federal Environment Agency reports that the replacement of older diesel cars with the most modern vehicles and software updates in 2020 together resulted in a significant reduction in air pollution with nitrogen oxides. Speed ​​limits and driving bans as well as the use of lower-polluting buses have also contributed to improving air quality, the report says. Nevertheless, limit values ​​for various air pollutants were exceeded in several German cities in 2020 and further measures to reduce them are necessary.

What can I do myself?

Protect myself and others

Not all, but some environmental hazards can be avoided. Clothing, sunscreen and staying in the shade reduce the risk of damage to health from UV radiation.Exercise outdoors should be avoided if the ozone levels are high. The Federal Environment Agency provides current data on air pollution with ozone and other pollutants here.

It is important to drink plenty of fluids on hot days to make up for fluid loss. The best for this is water. Coffee, sweet or alcoholic drinks will not help. Here, too, the following applies: only exercise at cool times, such as in the morning. Blinds or curtains help keep the interiors cool. The best time to ventilate is at night or in the morning. Sick and elderly people as well as small children are particularly at risk in hot spells and should be given special attention. Further tips can be found in this brochure from the Federal Ministry for the Environment.

Information protects! Warnings about acute local health hazards (for example about Legionella in drinking water or the condition of bathing lakes) are published by municipalities, federal states, regional and local media. The NINA warning app from the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance provides information about storms, floods and other dangers.

Information about questionable ingredients in cosmetics or everyday products is offered, for example, by the warning app "Toxfox", which is made available by the environmental organization BUND. The "CodeCheck" app also provides information about the ingredients of products.

To protect the environment

Everyone can make a contribution to protecting the environment through their own behavior. Reducing car journeys to the bare minimum and driving at a reduced speed reduces air and noise pollution. It is even better for the environment and health to use a bicycle or to walk.

It is important to properly dispose of the different types of waste. Under no circumstances should toxic or environmentally harmful waste such as batteries, energy-saving lamps or empty paint buckets end up in nature. The local waste disposal companies accept hazardous waste; hazardous substances are not allowed in the household waste. Small batteries and energy-saving lamps can also be sold in drugstores, for example. Plastic packaging is often carelessly thrown into nature or onto the street. Collecting these prevents the plastics from polluting the soil or entering the sea via rivers. Cigarette butts are also an environmental hazard for animals and nature.

Washing your car outside of a car wash, for example in front of your own house, also pollutes the environment and is not permitted. An oil change may only be carried out by workshops that properly dispose of the used oil.

Sustainable and, above all, reduced consumption helps prevent environmental damage from occurring in the first place. Less meat means less manure and thus less pollution of the groundwater, trains instead of air means less CO2Emissions and air pollutants. Repairing old jeans instead of buying new ones saves water and chemicals in production and pesticides in cotton cultivation. See also the topics of the week Sustainable Consumption? That's how it's done! and waste prevention: less is more!

Additional information

Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety: Topic page health and the environment

Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety: Brochure Environmental Protection is Health Protection

Federal Office for Radiation Protection: Radiation

European Health Agency

WWF: Environmental degradation and health

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