30 November 2007

Environmental Sensitivities: Another vulnerable group for HIA to consider?

The old adage, 'one man's meat is another man's poison' succinctly captures the differing ways that we all can react to environmental factors. For instance, people with blue eyes, red hair, freckles and pale skin tend to be sensitive to sunshine, burning more readily than the rest of us.

Though sunburn is not nice, it's generally temporary, but some people have crippling reactions to such things as household chemicals e.g. air fresheners and detergents; the chemicals used to make furnishings fire retardant; and electromagnetic radiation from electricity generation and distribution.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has commissioned a new report, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears to look into his area and provide guidance on what can be done about it.

The report summarises the current scientific information on environmental sensitivities. It states that around 3% of Canadians have been diagnosed with environmental sensitivities, and many more are somewhat sensitive to traces of chemicals and/or electromagnetic phenomena in the environment. People experience a range of physical, mental and emotional symptoms with the avoidance of triggers being the key step in both regaining and maintaining health and wellbeing.

The report addresses issues such as the definition and prevalence of environmental sensitivities; recognition by medical authorities; education and training within the medical community; origins, triggers and symptoms of sensitivities; impact of environmental sensitivities in the workplace; government policies and standards for building codes, air quality and ventilation as they affect individuals with environmental sensitivities; and guidelines for accommodation within the workplace.

It also says that for people with environmental sensitivities, their health and ability to work rests with the actions of others, including building managers, co-workers and clients. Accommodating people with environmental sensitivities presents an opportunity to improve workplace environmental quality and workers’ performance, and may help prevent the onset of sensitivities in others.

For those interested in the original scientific and technical literature, an annotated bibliography is available on request from environmentalhealthmed@gmail.com.

In relation to HIA, it raises an interesting question for HIA practice. Should environmentally-sensitive individuals be considered a distinct vulnerable group in HIAs, one that is routinely considered?

Personally, while I do consider this issue, especially where it relates to EMG fields, I do not consider it formally and more importantly do not tend to suggest mitigation and enhancement measures routinely to ensure that environmental-sensitivity is not exacerbated or generated in development projects that I work on. Partly this is because I haven't researched them, and they haven't come to my attention, and secondly, arguably more importantly, the issues seems to affect so few people and seems so esoteric in the context of poverty, run-down urban environments and widening social and health inequalities that it doesn't merit more than a line or two if that.

However it could be that they are the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine', sentinel individuals who are highlighting a potentially wider problem that is affecting all of us to some extent though not enough for us to have actual physical symptoms.

I'm personally not sure how to handle this issue and would love to know what other people think, have you down a HIA where this was or became an issue?...