By William Rish, PhD  |   January 25th, 2016
What are the most important health and environmental risk factors of 2016?
There have been several recent surveys that have identified the top health and environmental risk factors of today.  According to the Global Risk Perception Survey of 900 experts, the top global environmental risks are:
By likelihood                                                               
  1. Extreme weather events 
  2. Natural catastrophes 
  3. Failure of climate change adaptation
  4. Water crises
By impact
  1. Water crises
  2. Spread of infectious diseases
  3. Failure of climate change adaptation
  4. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
Notice that failure of climate change adaptation and water crises are on both lists.  The World Health Organization (WHO) recently identified the leading health risk factors in higher income countries as, in order:
  1. Tobacco use
  2. Alcohol use
  3. Overweight and obesity
  4. High blood pressure
  5. High blood glucose
  6. Physical inactivity
  7. High cholesterol
  8. Illicit drugs
  9. Occupational risks
  10. Low fruit and vegetable intake
Notice that, with the exception of occupational risks, all of these are risks of self rather than risks created by others.  Also notice that these risks can be managed by one’s self.  The WHO also recently identified the leading global environmental health factors as:
  1. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene - particularly as a result of diarrheal disease (1.7 million deaths per year)
  2. Indoor smoke - from solid fuels such as dung, coal and wood (1.6 million deaths per year)
  3. Malaria - mostly African children under the age of five (1.2 million deaths per year)
  4. Urban air pollution - from vehicles, industries and energy production (800,000 deaths per year).
  5. Unintentional acute poisonings -  In developing countries, where two-thirds of these deaths occur, mainly from pesticides.(355,000 deaths per year)
  6. Climate change impacts including extreme weather events, changed patterns of disease, and effects on agricultural production (150,000 deaths per year).
Finally, the United States EPA recently named indoor air exposures as the top environmental health risk.  Looking over these lists, several thoughts come to mind.  I am fairly sure that 10 to 20 years ago chemically-contaminated sites and industrial water pollution would have been on some of the lists.  Environmental risk concerns are transitioning toward issues of a broader scale, such as climate change, the availability of water, regional air impacts, and community/population health impacts.  Also, the risk factors and priorities of higher income nations, such as the U.S., are very different from those of much of the world.  And lastly, the biggest sources of health risk in the U.S. appear to be mostly related to self-related factors that a person can control and/or reduce.  These findings suggest that a shift and refocus of environmental risk management policies and actions could be more effective in improving public health. 
William Rish, PhD, HullRAC Director
William (Bill) is a Principal and the Vice President of Hull's Environmental Market at Hull.  He also directs The HULL Risk Analysis Center (HullRAC) and has over 30 years of experience in risk assessment, decision analysis, and environmental consulting. 
Bill has been on the forefront of environmental liability evaluation, including the development of probabilistic techniques for quantifying environmental liability associated with contaminated sites in financial terms, and is published expert and expert witness in risk assessment and uncertainty analysis.
Bill received a Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie‑Mellon University.
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