Environmental Surveillance: Can Our Rivers Make Our Public Health Policies?

Words by Clarissa Bell

After the years of COVID-19 being front and centre of seemingly every news site, media reporting of public health is more frequent and prevalent than ever. As it should be! Of course, we should have knowledge about public health concerns and environmental risks that are being monitored. However, we don’t see the complications of the many monitoring processes, mainly so the public gets the most important material out of our news articles.  

Enter the concept of Environmental Surveillance. According to the UK Government, Environmental Public Health Surveillance Systems are used by the Health Security Agency to collect data on climate-related and environmental events to make informed decisions about disease reduction and managing environmental incidents. Although the monitoring systems in place are not new in themselves, the government has recently introduced new policies and initiatives with the UK Health Agency launching the official use of environmental surveillance for public health in England alone in 2020

These systems are used to monitor a vast variety of environmentally traceable health concerns – and the news shows just how valuable these systems can be. In the UK air pollution has been named as a priority for organisations to monitor. The Food Standards Agency have recently received £19.2 million in funding for a cross-governmental environmental surveillance project to dramatically reduce foodborne disease and to ensure fewer people endure serious illness or death from being able to track and treat these diseases in advance. More specifically, the information we now have about COVID-19 has led to policy reports being formulated to implement tracking measures for communities, so that they can anticipate resource usage, testing, and appropriate support measures for those involved. Monitoring sewage and sanitation in rivers across the country has allowed lead levels and the detection of polio to be closely documented well into the past, and it continues to retain its importance. In May of this year, the World Health Organisation helped implement these types of systems in Iraq as part of their polio treatment plans, alongside providing equipment and training. I’ve not even talked about the endless possibilities of climate-related environmental surveillance, which could help inform how we approach environmental and climate related monitoring. In short, a lot of causes could be efficiently aided by these systems if implemented correctly. 

So why am I writing an article about these systems if these systems are already so brilliant?  

Well, to invest in data collection systems, we need funding. There have been many articles recently reporting scandals related to the UK government’s Environmental Agency (EA) – whose job is to undertake the monitoring responsibilities, ensure data quality, and effectively research, for this exact dilemma. With two thirds of their former funding slashed, staffing levels cut dramatically, and a duty to report breaches of environmental laws, numerous whistle-blowers have come forward with serious statements. Many reported responding to negative comments or criticism inside or outside of work with threats of termination. Some reported that they received instructions for them to avoid investigations into ‘low-tier’ pollution threats –  which if not treated at the source, could become dangerous incredibly quickly without proper monitoring. It has also been revealed that the EA had full knowledge of a company pumping raw sewage into English rivers for an estimated 2.6 million hours (likely an underestimation), and only treated 65% of it.  

In response to the ineffectiveness of the EA over their lacklustre data collection policies, citizen river monitoring projects have now been set up after citizens discovered holes in these EA datasets. Simply, these organisations and agencies are not going to be perfect – but these systems are (supposed to be) responsible for dealing with precautionary measures that aid our understanding of nationwide health. The fact that citizens can expose wide gaps in government-led and funded agency datasets is a terrifying fact, after realising how important and information-rich our river systems can be when dealing with issues like climate events, environmental health, COVID-19, polio, and foodborne diseases.  

In all the reports, the recommendation for moving forward with these environmental surveillance systems is transparency. We see it a number of times in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and progress reports, we hear it on the news, we feel it when we are excluded, from potentially life-or-death conversations involving who decides what the best way forward for entire populations’ health is. Transparency is as important as what those officials choose to do with our data, or what issues stakeholders prioritise over others – so these decision-makers need to be more transparent about their actions regarding our health and the health of the environment. Of course, there is the ethics in using nature for our own sakes but ultimately, our rivers hold endless amounts of biodiversity, beauty, and valuable information about the area it lies in. This system can harness information and bring so much attention to such serious issues, but these reports cannot be enough when those in charge will not come forward for us.  

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