‘Healthy Dose of Green: A green prescription for a healthy population.”

Breathing for us

February 10, 2012 Mark Cullen
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Trees are the lungs of the earth — inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen.

The health of our own lungs may in fact be more interconnected with surrounding trees than we may think, according to Trees Ontario (www.treesontario.ca), the largest tree planting partnership in North America.

While the production of oxygen, purification of air, protection against soil erosion, the sequestering of carbon, and the countless other benefits provided by trees is well known, health benefits of trees have largely been overlooked. Through the amalgamation of over 150 studies and reports, Tree Ontario’s 26-page paper tells us a fascinating story.

Friday, Trees Ontario released their report “A Healthy Dose of Green: A green prescription for a healthy population.”

“Forests and green spaces have been linked to a significant decline in stress, a decrease in the severity of attention deficit/hyperactivity symptoms in children, improved rehabilitation and faster hospital recovery rates,” the introduction states.

It is on this basis that the study provides insight into a complex situation (the current state of human health) with remarkably simple answers (plant more trees).

Here in Ontario, we treat illnesses, spending billions of dollars as they occur, but we invest relatively little in prevention.

What if restoring the health of our environment was used as a preventative health measure? What if I told you that for every dollar planted — sorry, I mean invested — in tree planting across the province, there is a long-term net saving of say $50 or $100 in health care savings?

Truth is I can’t say that the savings are that great, but maybe they are greater.

In any case, it seems to me that we can make Premier Dalton McGuinty’s job of deficit reduction much easier here.

The report attempts to cover the most common illnesses and how their incidence may decrease as a result of healthier ecosystems. Highlights include:

Cardiovascular Disease

The leading cause of death in the province, cardiovascular disease takes about 24,000 lives each year. Cost to Ontario tax payers is $5.5 billion annually and that is expected to double by 2018 as our population ages. It has been proven that airborne pollutants including sulphur dioxide, sulphates and nitrogen oxides are the major causes of cardiovascular disease.

Forest ecosystems provide extensive ecological services that are beneficial and often critical. Up to 85 per cent of air pollution in a city park and up to 70 per cent of pollutants in a street can be filtered by trees.

The study suggests that trees must be seriously considered when developing long-term strategies to lower health-care costs. We need to add ‘trees’ to our lexicon of health-speak.

Respiratory Illnesses

Air pollution has been linked to negative respiratory health with more than 3 million Canadians suffering from serious respiratory diseases. In 2004, respiratory diseases were associated with 37,260 deaths in Ontario and nearly $12.4 billion are exhausted annually in direct and indirect health-care costs.

Trees are nature’s air filters for airborne pollutants. Researchers at Columbia University have found that for every additional 343 trees per square kilometre, asthma rates drop by 25 per cent in young children. The correlation between the number of trees and the number of asthma cases remained consistent regardless of population density, levels of affluence and sources of pollution.

In other words, no one can escape the negative effects of air pollution and everyone benefits equally from the air cleaning capabilities of community trees.

Diabetes

Approximately 1.2 million people, or 8.3 per cent, of Ontario’s population have been diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. This number is expected to rise to over 11 per cent by 2022. Health care costs are currently $4.9 billion.

Medical researchers have found a strong linear relationship between adult diabetes and smog. The more smog, the greater the number of cases. Even after taking into account obesity and ethnicity, smog is high on the list on the risk-factors.

As we already know, trees are effective tools for cleaning airborne pollutants. Trees should be considered one of the primary assets in our diabetes-fighting tool box.

Cancer

The big one, as you might expect. Each year, 170,000 new cases of cancer and 75,000 deaths occur in Canada as a result of it. “A Healthy Dose of Green” reminds us that trees replenish our atmospheric oxygen by filtering out carcinogenic compounds. Trees protect us from the harmful effects of many airborne pollutants.

Trees also protect us from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays. One tree reduces your chances of burning in the sun by 2 ½ times, and a dense stand of trees provides five times the protection.

Phytoncides, or wood essential oils, derived from trees have also been linked to cancer prevention. By attacking tumour cells through the increase of “natural killer cell” activity, and the intracellular levels of anti-cancer proteins, trees help prevent the development of various types of cancer.

In Japan the term Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, involves a visit to a forest for relaxation and recreational purposes, where visitors can breathe in fresh air and phytoncides released naturally by the trees. Forest bathing trips are known to reduce stress and increase natural killer cell activity. Forest bathing day trips could be employed here in Canada as a healthful alternative to bus trips to the casino.

As Canadians, I often think that we are blessed with so many trees and forests that we literally do not see the value in them. It is the classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

ADD and ADHD

Data obtained by researchers at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois indicate that children playing in greener settings exhibit less severe ADD symptoms. Other research indicate that the greener the children’s play areas, the less severe their attention deficit symptoms.

Stress

Nearly 23 per cent of Canadians report a high degree of life stress. Numerous studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the presence of trees and a decline in stress levels. Researchers have also observed that hospital patients who can see trees from their windows need less medication and enjoy faster recovery times following surgery. The result is reduced hospital stays.

Once again in Japan, a study reveals that a trip to a forest increases the score for vigour and decreases the scores for anxiety, depression and anger.

The compilation of studies and research papers also provides proof that trees and forests reduce depression. They also promote physical activity, outdoor leisure time (less time in front of the TV and computer) and improvements in motor fitness and coordination abilities. Children play out of doors more frequently and for longer periods of time.

The Prognoses

In order to achieve a healthy ecosystem in Southern Ontario, we need to achieve a minimum 30 per cent forest cover. This will only occur with the planting of 1 billion trees more than are currently planted in urban and rural spaces.

Trees Ontario is developing a long-term sustainable plan to plant more trees but investment in urban/ rural forest infrastructure is needed. Many players will be called upon to step to the plate to make it happen: all three levels of government, not-for-profit organizations, corporations, volunteers, cash donors and land owners will have to cooperate in forest restoration, the likes of which we have not ever seen before.

The good news? “A relatively modest investment in trees and forests can reap great rewards by reducing long-term health-care costs and increasing the health, well-being and productivity of current and future generations of Ontarians.”

I told you that the answers were simple.

For more information go to www.treesontario.ca.

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