A longitudinal study recently published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reinforces growing evidence that the natural environment is a public health benefit and its loss has significant consequences. Donovan et al. (2013) discovered that a loss of trees resulted in increased mortality rates among local residents suffering from cardiovascular and lower respiratory system diseases across the United States.
The emerald ash borer has killed millions of trees in North America since it was first detected over ten years ago. Native to Asia, this phloem-feeding beetle was likely introduced as a result of a high level international trade at ports of entry in wood packing material and thrived within the urban forests located in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario. Infestations across North America have caused approximately $12 billion in damages, excluding impacts on human health.
Donovan et al. used the spread of the pest across the United States to evaluate human health impacts as a result of the damage caused to the forest. The results collected suggested that the loss of trees across 15 states in the study area contributed to an additional 6113 deaths related to respiratory illness and 15,080 deaths related to cardiovascular diseases. According to their data, wealthier neighbourhoods were hit hardest, possibly as a result of higher tree canopy coverage in these areas.
While there were no indicators found to directly support how trees can improve mortality rates for these diseases, there is ample research out there supporting trees and green space as a mechanism to improve air quality, reduce stress, increase physical activity, moderate temperature and buffer stressful life events. Here in Canada, The Canadian Forest Service expects Emerald Ash Borer infestations to continue expanding across the country as a result of human movement of infested material such as firewood and the high proportion of ash trees in urban tree inventories. The results of Donovan et al.’s research are some interesting food for thought on what happens to our well-being when our surrounding environment suffers a massive loss.
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