Earth Science, Health and Wellbeing (7th GfGD Annual Conference, London, UK)

A contribution by Dr. Joel Gill, Director, Geology for Global Development

In November 2019, the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) supported an innovative conference exploring the role of geoscientists in Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing. Organised by the UK-based charity, Geology for Global Development, this conference brought together a highly diverse audience of students, early-career geoscientists and other health and development professionals.

Since 1900, the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and in the last few decades we have made significant strides to tackle many diseases, and associated challenges of poverty and undernourishment. While this conference highlighted the ways in which we have made progress, it also noted that we must not be complacent. Health challenges disproportionately affect the poorest in society – lack of simple interventions and access to basic services (e.g., clean water, safe sanitation, good hygiene practices, clean energy) are major causes of disease and death in developing regions. Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG 3) aims to address these and other health challenges. Targets aim to end preventable deaths of new-born infants and children under 5 years of age (Target 3.2), end epidemics of Aids, TB, Malaria, water-borne diseases (Target 3.3), improve promotion of mental health and wellbeing (Target 3.4), substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination (Target 3.9), and strengthen the capacity of countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of health risks (Target 3.D).

Dr Joel C. Gill (GfGD Executive Director) opens the Conference.

Dr Chris Broadbent (Wardell Armstrong International) speaks about mining and health.

Delivering SDG 3 relies on progress made on many other goals, including ending hunger (SDG 2), ensuring access to clean water and safe sanitation (SDG 6), reducing energy poverty (SDG 7), reducing inequalities (SDG 10), sustainable urbanisation (SDG 11), and reducing environmental degradation (SDGs 13, 14, and 15).

Geoscientists support in tackling a range of challenges is essential to securing a healthy future for all, and all the benefits to social development that this brings – reducing the likelihood of communities falling back into poverty, allowing children to spend more time in school, and giving adults a better opportunity to build livelihoods and generate an income. Environmental factors have a major influence on improving health outcomes, as explored at the GfGD Annual Conference.

Delivering SDG 3 requires integrated approaches to managing natural resources. Dr Chris Broadbent (Wardell Armstrong International), Geraint Burrows (Groundwater Relief) and Professor Jane Entwistle (Northumbria University/Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health) opened the meeting with talks about their work in mining, hydrogeology, and geochemistry respectively. Geoscientists both work in environments where hazardous materials are used, and must take necessary steps to reduce air, water and soil pollution, and better manage all forms of waste. Soil pollution has diverse origins, particularly in regions with a complex industrial legacy. Geochemistry provides the tools to examine soil pollution and potential pathways by which it may result in human, animal and plant health problems. Geoscientists also have the skills to improve access to key resources, such as groundwater, that help to reduce the burden of diseases on many vulnerable groups. The conference also explored issues relating to mental health and wellbeing, with Professor Ilan Kelman (University College London) highlighting that environmental change and shocks can impact on or exacerbate both physical and mental health conditions.

Geohazards threaten lives; result in injuries, and impact on the mental wellbeing of those affected and living in regions at risk. Geoscientists work in many regions affected by geological hazards, and those living with such risks need to be listened to and empathised with. Genuine empathy, as discussed by Cecilia Reed (Freelance Science Communicator), can be a powerful tool in risk communication, ensuring a two-way dialogue to explore hazards and how risks can be reduced. Geological hazards also produce physical health challenges, such as the impact of volcanic ash on respiratory conditions. Professor Claire Horwell (Durham University), highlighted the benefits of interdisciplinary work in understanding physical hazards and strengthening disaster risk reduction. At the heart of the SDGs is the message of ‘leaving no one behind’ – ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable have access to the information and resources they need to improve health and wellbeing. We were challenged by Kevin Blanchard (DRR Dynamics Ltd) to be inclusive in our work on geological hazards and reflect on how we ‘leave no one behind’ with our work and outputs.

Cecilia Reed discusses ‘empathy’ in the context of disaster risk communication.

Professor Jane Entwistle (Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health) presents prizes to the winning student micro-presentation team, from Southampton University.

A highlight of the conference, commended by many who attended, were a series of student micro-presentations on asbestos minerals, fluoride in groundwater, minerals used in medical technologies, and geology to improve mental health. Sponsored by the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health, the winning presentation was given by students at the University of Southampton who explored the use of copper in medical technologies.

 

Geology for Global Development (GfGD) is a not-for-profit organisation (registered charity 1165663), mobilising and equipping the geology community to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals. GfGD are very grateful for the support of EFG in coordinating this conference, and their commitment to connecting geoscience with societal challenges. We look forward to working together on future activities. A full conference report, including details of all conference supporters, will be available soon from the GfGD website: https://www.gfgd.org/conferences

EFG has been represented at the event by Marie Fleming, delegate of the Institute of Geologists of Ireland and Chairperson of the EFG Registration Authority. She is also a trustee of GfGD. 

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