Good morning, and it’s absolutely brilliant to see so many people attending here today.
And it really is my pleasure to join with Stephanie
in welcoming you all to this really important
EPA/HSE Health & Wellbeing Conference.
And Stephanie has already talked about
the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
and also some of the World Health Organisation work
in the area of health and wellbeing.
And really what that is is a recognition of the intrinsic links
between sustainable environments and healthy lives.
So the conference is therefore both timely
and also really relevant to the work that our organisations do.
Many of you will be aware and know that the EPA,
since our formation in 1993,
have worked to protect human health as well as the environment.
Our mission is to protect and improve the environment
as a valuable asset for the people of Ireland,
and to protect our people and the environment
from the harmful effects of radiation and pollution.
So that clearly articulates our mission and our ambition.
Moreover, if you look at the core obligations of the EPA
as set out in our founding legislation back in 1993,
it’s to prevent environmental pollution.
But you will see that the definition of environmental pollution
specifically identifies harm to human health.
A similar requirement is to protect human health
from the harmful effects of radiation
is articulated in the Radiological Protection Act
which we also now, since the merger of the EPA and the RPII,
is a key piece of regulation and legislation for us.
But there’s also an emphasis or a similar emphasis in all of our legislation,
let it be drinking water, air, waste, noise, etc.
So harm to human health is specifically articulated in the legislation that drives our work.
But these harms are not mutually exclusive,
what is clear is that protecting the environment serves to protect human health.
We are at the front line of environmental protection and policing.
It’s a huge responsibility but it is one that we don’t carry alone.
We are really fortunate to work with many organisations,
public, private and voluntary,
that support and enhance our efforts at local, national and EU level.
Our regulatory and public facing roles also touch with individuals and communities
in many parts of the country, and those people reinforce through their communications
with the EPA just how important a clean, healthy
and well-protected environment is to our health and wellbeing.
We use science and research to constantly find new and better ways
to maintain our environment, for the health and wellbeing of the people of Ireland.
And when the environment is compromised or damaged
we take firm and decisive action to ensure the high standards we set are adhered to.
For those of us working in this area it can often be quite difficult
to sum up the value of the environment to our lives.
How do you quantify the impact of something so intangible?
The terms green spaces and blue spaces are now often used,
moving the debate from considering the health impact of point sources
to considering the health impact, the broader health impact,
of our ambient environment, both good and bad.
And I’m sure there will be more discussion here today about blue and green spaces.
Green spaces include forests, parks and farmlands
- blue spaces, rivers, canals, lakes and coastlines.
And there is now a growing body of scientific evidence
that links exposure to nature to benefits in coping with mental stress and fatigue.
It has been shown that the very act of getting out in nature,
whether in a park, on a beach, or walking on a road,
can bring real benefits to our mental wellbeing.
I’m also aware that the concept of green and blue prescriptions
is now being explored in Ireland by the HSE
as a tool to improve community health and wellbeing.
In addition, the EPA and HSE are co-funding research
in the area of ecosystems benefits to health,
which Stephanie mentioned earlier.
And there really are some great and interesting poster displays
for health and environment themed research projects here today.
And I would encourage you to visit those and to talk to the researchers involved in them.
I was also struck by a recent study conducted in Toronto in Canada
that looked at one tiny area, how trees can improve our lives.
And that study found that having 10 more trees in one city block
had a measurable impact on how people perceive their health.
They found that having 10 more trees in a city block
on average improves health perception in a way
comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000
or being seven years younger.
So 10 more trees, that’s all it takes to improve someone’s perception
of their health and wellbeing.
For many of us the study confirmed what we already perceive,
that our lives are better with a healthy environment.
And Sir David Attenborough put it far more eloquently than I ever could
when he said “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement,
the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest.
It is the greatest source of so much that makes life worth living.”
For most of us here today that’s something we instinctively knew anyway.
Our health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked to quality of our natural environment.
So the air we breathe, the waters we bathe in,
the blue and green beauty spots we relax in,
the noise levels that surround us,
the odours we experience and the cleanliness of our countryside, towns and villages.
These all affect our sense of health and wellbeing.
Erosion in the quality of our natural environment
through pollution and other human-induced impacts
will negatively impact our health and wellbeing.
So we have made the theme of health and wellbeing
the cornerstone of the EPA’s new statement of strategy.
And it’s our plan for 2016-2020,
and you can see it here in the slide,
and it’s called Our Environment, Our Wellbeing.
To support this theme we have identified five strategic goals
to be progressed during the lifetime of our strategy
– being a trusted environmental regulator
– a leader in environmental evidence and knowledge
– an effective advocate and partner
– responding to key environmental challenges
– and being organisationally excellent.
And these goals will provide a clear focus for our work between now and 2020.
These are crucial years and much needs to be achieved
if we are to lay the foundations of a real transition in Ireland
to a low-carbon and resource-efficient society and economy.
Under this strategy we are committed to further strengthen
our core functions of regulation, enforcement and assessment,
prioritising air and water quality, climate change,
and enhancing the radiation protection framework in Ireland.
And the agency will also engage more closely with citizens,
communities and businesses to help them work out how to live more sustainable lives.
We are an organisation of approximately 400 people.
We are privileged to have some of the best,
brightest and committed people on our team.
However, we alone cannot bring about the type of
transformative change that is now needed.
That’s why we are placing a significant emphasis in our strategy
on working with others, including local communities,
to help them become more engaged, more informed
and more energised about the environment.
We want people to understand the value of the environment in their lives
and to work with them so that problems with the environment can be addressed.
Equally as individuals we all have a responsibility for both our own health and wellbeing
but also our natural environment.
And we in the EPA recognise our important role in providing online,
up-to-date, timely and accessible data and information
on the environment to stakeholders.
So we are working hard to make sure that environmental information
is interesting and relevant to the public to stimulate increased engagement
with the environment and to mobilise more sustainable behaviours.
We have a number of initiatives, most of which, if not all,
can be found on the EPA’s website, including Ireland’s Environment,
which is an award-winning national portal for environmental information,
My Local Environment, which is a site that makes technical environmental data sets
available in an easy-to-use way for members of the public,
and also Live Green, which is a one-stop-shop for people and organisations
with advice from a variety of public bodies on how to live more sustainable lives.
We are also keen to encourage and support active participation
by people and their communities in working to both protect and improve their local environment,
and for example our really popular See It, Say It app
makes it very easy for anyone to report environmental pollution in their area.
And having used it multiple times
it’s a great way of reporting pollution and actually getting issues addressed.
We also have Catchments.ie which is a recent addition to our public information suite.
It gives the public really easy to access information
about their local water catchment and what they can do to improve it.
But the EPA and the HSE, we have been working together for many years
to protect people and human health and the environment.
Some of our earliest collaborations with the HSE
were in relation to the impact assessment
or the health impacts of large industrial facilities,
and also for problem sites investigations,
such as silver mines at Askeaton and Castlecomer.
In the 1990s we also worked very closely with the HSE
to close all the old medical incinerators operating in Irish hospitals,
where achievement of modern standards wasn’t going to be possible.
Our radiological protection staff have long collaborated with the HSE
in relation to authorisation and operation of nuclear medical facilities
and controlled equipment.
And more recently we worked with the HSE on the hugely successful national project
to remove disused radioactive sources
held in long-term storage across the national medical infrastructure.
As we have developed more sophisticated functions in areas such as drinking water and air quality,
we have also worked very closely with you in the HSE.
We have an air quality index that was developed in partnership with the HSE and Met Eireann.
And we also have been working, I suppose for five years now at this stage,
in collaboration with the HSE on the Green Healthcare Programme,
which looks at resource efficiency practices in acute and primary care hospitals.
The programme, which is delivered through the clean technology centre in Cork,
was pretty unique in the EU when it commenced.
It has demonstrated hugely significant results in terms of
resource efficiency across areas such as water, energy and food waste,
with potential savings of around €9m.
And of course all of those economic savings mean that there’s more finance available
to spend on direct health care provision.
So you are not wasting money in areas that the money could be better spent.
We are also represented on the HSE’s national health and sustainability office steering group
and of course the HSE are represented on the EPA’s health advisory committee
which was formed back in 2012.
So lastly just to talk briefly about the EPA’s State of the Environment Report.
It was published a couple of weeks ago.
It’s the sixth such report published by the EPA.
The first one was back in 1995.
And these reports track the overall quality and trends in our natural environment,
the changing pressures on our environment,
that can put the quality at risk of deterioration,
and the responses needed to deal with pressures,
as well as key challenges that need to be addressed.
Similar reports have been published for Europe by the European Environment Agency
over this time period, and we now have strong evidence,
both at national and European level,
to help plan for a clean, healthy and well-protected environment.
And I know Jock Martin of the EEA will talk more about this this morning.
Well this report finds that the overall quality of Ireland’s natural environment is good,
but it is a highly qualified good,
and indicates that the State and all of us as citizens
need to act quickly to protect what we have.
We have identified three over-arching systemic issues in the report.
Firstly, developing a much stronger appreciation of the link
between a clean and well-protected environment
and our health and wellbeing,
secondly, tackling climate change
and thirdly, making sure that the suite of existing environmental legislation
already in place is properly implemented
as a means of achieving a clean and well-protected environment.
So as you can see this report seeks to highlight the critical role
that the environment plays in delivering health and wellbeing for our population.
And my colleague, Jonathan Derham, later this morning
will present the highlights from this national assessment,
with particular reference to the health area.
Ireland’s environment is a fundamental and high quality national asset
that provides a strong foundation for health and contented lives.
Our most basic needs are clean air, safe drinking water,
safe shelter and healthy food.
The quality of each one of these needs is directly influenced by the quality of our environment.
It follows that protecting damage to the environment
arising from human activities also helps to protect our health and wellbeing.
So I look forward to today’s discussions, to developing relationships,
and to deepening our collective understanding of the environment and health nexus.
What is clear is that in order to best protect the wellbeing of Irish society
collaboration will be a key element of our collective future.
And I suppose this is what myself and Stephanie certainly have been talking about
is how we can bring that collaboration forward.
So we want to work with the HSE
in tackling the evolving complexity of this area’s science,
and in particular co-designing appropriate behavioural change interventions
which will address many of the self-induced harms in this environment and health space.
Health and wellbeing stresses associated with urbanisation,
air quality, water pollution, climate change, new materials and diffuse chemicals,
are matters that we together need to build the evidence for,
advocate for and ultimately address.
Thank you very much.
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Laura Burke, Director General, EPA
Our Environment Our Wellbeing, EPA Strategy