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July 17, 2012
The Closer You Live To The Sea, The Healthier You Are, But That May Soon Change


A new study from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health has confirmed previous findings that people living near the coast tend to have better health than those living inland. Researchers point to some obvious reasons for this benefit, but other experts now claim that living less than 50km from the coast could be a detriment in the future.



Researchers from the Centre used data from the UK's census to examine how health varied across the country, finding that people were more likely to have good health the closer they live to the sea. The analysis also showed that the link between living near the coast and good health was strongest in the most economically deprived communities.

The study used data from the 2001 census for England, which brought together responses from over 48 million people. Researchers looked at the proportion of people who reported their health as being "Good" (rather than "Fairly Good or "Not Good") and then compared this with how close those respondents lived to the coast. They also took into account the way that age, sex and a range of social and economic factors (like education and income) vary across the country.

The results show that on average, populations living by the sea report rates of good health more than similar populations living inland. The authors were keen to point out that although this effect is relatively small, when applied to the whole population the impacts on public health could be substantial. Along with other studies the results of this work suggest that access to 'good' environments may have a role in reducing inequality in health between the wealthiest and poorest members of society.

Previous research has shown that the coastal environment may not only offer better opportunities for its inhabitants to be active, but also provide significant benefits in terms of stress reduction. Another recent study conducted by the Centre in collaboration with Natural England found that visits to the coast left people feeling calmer, more relaxed and more revitalised than visits to city parks or countryside. One reason those living in coastal communities may attain better physical health could be due to the stress relief offered by spending time near to the sea.

Because there is no common definition of what constitutes a coastal region, estimates of coastal populations vary. Most are based on an area within 60 to 200 kilometers of the shoreline and may include coastal floodplains, coastal forests called mangroves, marshes, and tideflats (coastal areas affected by the rise and fall of the tide), as well as beaches, dunes, and coral reefs. Coastal areas help prevent erosion; filter pollutants; and provide food, shelter, breeding areas, and nursery grounds for a wide variety of organisms. Coastal regions also provide critical inputs for industry, including water and space for shipping and ports; opportunities for recreational activities such as fishing and diving; and other raw materials, including salt and sand.

However, in the future people who live within 50 kilometers of coastal regions may suffer the cumulative burden of environmental stress from the activities on and overcrowding of the coast and from upstream and inland development. If not properly managed, development will result in pollution, deforestation, and inadequate management of soil, water, pesticides, and fertilizers. Damming rivers will also have negative environmental effects, such as soil erosion and destruction of ecosystems that support various fish and marine mammals. When concentrated in small, confined, and overcrowded areas such as coastal zones, pollution and other problems will pose greater threats to human health.

Sewage is the largest source of environmental contamination, and discharges have increased dramatically in the past three decades. Eighty percent of marine pollution comes from land-based sources; the remaining 20 percent comes from atmospheric sources, including acid rain and marine-based sources such as oil spills. As coastal communities grow, sewage can become a threat to local waterways: Demand often exceeds available sewage treatment, and much of the sewage is dumped without being treated.

Chemicals and heavy metals found in pesticide runoff and industrial effluents also damage human and marine health. The most serious concerns worldwide involve persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which can be transported in the atmosphere and have become common in the oceans. POPs tend to linger in living tissue and become more concentrated as they move up the food chain, so they are sometimes found even in people who live in remote, undeveloped regions. Evidence links long-term, low-level exposure to certain POPs with reproductive, immunological, neurological, and other problems in marine organisms and humans.

Dr Mathew White said "While not everyone can live by the sea, some of the health promoting features of coastal environments could be transferable to other places. Any future initiatives will need to balance the potential benefits of coastal access against threats from extreme events, climate change impacts, and the unsustainable exploitation of coastal locations."

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.


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