Earth Day Raises Awareness of Environmental Impacts on Health and Wellness

April 20, 2024 by Jesse Zucker
Earth Day Raises Awareness of Environmental Impacts on Health and Wellness
Cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — As plants, trees and flowers continue to greet the season, one month into spring marks a worldwide occasion: Earth Day. Earth Day has been observed on April 22 every year since 1970 as a global moment to raise environmental awareness.

Let’s look at a brief history of Earth Day and the theme for 2024, then examine key areas where caring for the environment can help improve health and wellness.

Brief History of Earth Day

The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, and is known as the birth of the environmental movement. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed at the end of 1970 due to environmental awareness raised in protests across the United States.

Leading up to the first Earth Day, Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, was increasingly concerned about industrial development’s impact on the environment. The Santa Barbara oil spill in January 1969 caused further worry. 

At the same time, students were participating in anti-war protests against the Vietnam War. Nelson wanted to engage that level of energy and passion to bring awareness about air and water pollution and environmental damage. He hired a young activist to inspire students on college campuses and then spread the idea across the country to other groups. 

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans gathered and demonstrated in one of the largest protests in history. Over the next 10 years, several environmental protection acts were passed. Earth Day is still observed every year, with 192 countries participating. 

Earth Day 2024

Each year, Earth Day focuses on a relevant issue. This year, the theme is “Planet vs. Plastics” to raise awareness about plastics’ harmful effects on the environment and human health. The campaign calls for a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040.

How Does the Environment Impact Health and Wellness?

Of course, caring for the environment is essential for the health of our planet. Here are a few areas where environmental damage can harm human health and wellness.

  • Air Pollution: Air pollution comes from several substances and particles, including Particulate Matter, Volatile Organic Compounds, nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, other dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Inhaling these substances damages your respiratory system and may lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, nervous system disorders, reproductive disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, asthma, bronchiolitis and some types of cancer. Air pollution also exacerbates seasonal allergies.
  • Water Pollution: Water pollution is a global issue. The World Health Organization estimates that 10% of the population cannot access clean drinking water. Drinking chemically polluted water can cause diarrhea, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, reproductive disorders and harm children’s development. 
  • Soil Pollution: Soil pollution harms our access to healthy, natural foods. It comes from heavy metals, pesticides, pathogens and microplastics. Polluted soil leads to the inability to grow food or yields contaminated crops — consuming them can lead to infection and disease. Polluted soil also runs into rivers and further contributes to water pollution.

Air, water, and soil pollution lead to nine million deaths per year, and 60% of them are due to cardiovascular disease. 

Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

There are many benefits to spending time in nature.

  • Outdoor Exercise: When the weather is nice, there’s nothing like taking a walk, jog, or bike ride and breathing in some (hopefully) fresh, clean air.
  • Gardening: Gardening can be a fun hobby, a chance to engage in mindfulness and a way to get extra movement in your day. 
  • Mental Health: There has been extensive research on the link between nature and mental health. Here are some recent reports.
    • A 2023 systematic review suggests spending time in nature can help improve heart rate variability, executive functioning and mental health.
    • A 2021 review found an association between time spent in nature and better cognitive functioning, brain activity, sleep, and lower blood pressure. It may also decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
    • A 2019 study suggests that at least 120 minutes per week in nature can yield mental health benefits. Another 2019 study suggests getting at least 10 to 20 minutes per day.

Happy Earth Day!

In order to boost our physical and mental health by enjoying time in nature, we need to care for the air, water and soil. To participate in an Earth Day event this year, check your location on the Earth Day map.

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