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Why should construction professionals care about their environmental impact?

It’s a question I’ve never really thought that hard about before, but I was part of a conversation a few weeks ago where the “why is the environment important” question was brought up. The answer that was presented went something like this: “protecting the environment is important because a spill now can manifest in cancer cases years down the line.” While this struck me as incredibly human-centric, it also gave me an insight into the beliefs of a very senior (non-environment) decision maker in the construction sector.

 

For years, “environment” has been at the back end of SHE (Safety, Health, and Environment) departments in construction firms nationwide, with safety and health being the major influence on decision making to protect employees from harm, and directors from prosecution. By its very nature, health and safety is very human-centric. I knew subconsciously that these considerations far outweighed those of the environment, but I hadn’t ever really thought that it could overtly influence environmental decision making as in the above example.


Our view of the world and the decisions we make are formed by our beliefs. Should those beliefs state that only environmental controls that prevent direct impact to humans are important, then, subconsciously we might dismiss controls that don’t directly mitigate harm. But it’s crucial to understand that environmental protection is also about protecting human health, albeit indirectly and over the longer term.


Here are several ways in which environmental harm during construction can have long-term indirect impacts on human health and well-being:

 

Silty rivers and their impact on the food chain

Construction activities often lead to increased sediment in nearby water bodies. When silt enters rivers, it can smother fish eggs and reduce oxygen levels, leading to the decline of fish populations. This disruption can cascade through the food chain, affecting other species and ultimately impacting our own food security.


Fish are a vital source of protein for many communities, and their decline can lead to nutritional deficiencies and food scarcity. Excessive sedimentation is a significant issue in UK rivers with reports indicating that sediment from agriculture and construction affects water quality and aquatic life, (Water@Leeds)​.


Environmental impact of silty rivers on the food chain

 


Bees and their role in delivering food security

I believe we all understand the essential role bees play in pollinating crops, which is of course crucial for food production. Construction activities have the potential to destroy natural habitats, and in the process reduce the variety and availability of flowering plants leading to a decline in bee populations, and indeed other pollinator species. This decline in time will significantly impact food security, as many of the crops humans rely on for food require pollination.

 

Dust reduces photosynthesis in plants

Construction activities generate dust that can settle on plant leaves, reducing their ability to photosynthesise. Photosynthesis is crucial for plant growth and food production. A decrease in plant growth can lead to lower crop yields, affecting food availability and prices. This impact is particularly severe in urban areas where green spaces are already limited. Dust and air pollution in the UK have been noted to affect plant health and agricultural productivity​.

 

Construction disrupts ecosystems and biodiversity

Construction activities can lead to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and alteration, which disrupt ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity loss. This loss of biodiversity can have cascading effects on ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as clean air, water purification, and soil fertility. The decline in biodiversity also reduces the resilience of ecosystems to environmental changes, making them more vulnerable to disasters. In the UK, river ecosystems are particularly vulnerable, with pollution and habitat loss threatening biodiversity​ (University of Oxford)​​ (Loughborough University)​.

 

Soil and water contamination affect agriculture and health

Construction sites often involve the use of hazardous materials and chemicals that can leach into the soil and groundwater, leading to contamination. This contamination can affect agricultural productivity by reducing soil fertility and poisoning crops. Moreover, contaminated water sources pose significant health risks to nearby communities, leading to diseases and other health problems. Soil and water contamination in the UK from industrial and agricultural activities has significant implications for public health and food safety​ (Water@Leeds)​​ (Loughborough University)​.

 

Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change

Construction activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions using heavy machinery, production of construction materials, and energy consumption. These emissions contribute to global warming and climate change, which have long-term effects on human health, food security, and overall quality of life. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increased frequency of extreme weather events can disrupt food production, lead to water shortages, and increase the incidence of climate-related diseases. The UK's construction industry significantly contributes to carbon emissions, emphasizing the need for sustainable practices​ (Loughborough University)​​ (Environment Agency Blog)​.

 

Conclusion

The indirect linkages between environmental damage during construction and long-term human impacts are extensive and multifaceted. Disruptions to ecosystems and biodiversity, soil and water contamination, and contributions to climate change are all significant factors that underscore the importance of integrating robust environmental protection measures in construction practices.


As environmental professionals, we need to influence decision-makers and make them believe that protecting the whole environment, not just the parts that directly impact human health, is the goal. It is a privilege to deliver environmental protection and enhancement measures for the future of the planet (which includes humans) rather than a burden to bear.


By acknowledging and addressing these broader impacts, construction professionals can play a crucial role in safeguarding not only the environment but also the long-term health and well-being of human populations. It is essential to adopt sustainable construction practices that minimise environmental damage and promote ecological resilience to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.


To discuss this further, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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