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Challenges to Humanity's Health: The Contributions of International Environmental Law to National and Global Public Health

January 2001

Citation: ELR 10048

Author: David P. Fidler

In the past 30 years, international environmental law has grown from an obscure field to one of the most dynamic and important areas in contemporary international law. The growth in the significance of international environmental law contrasts with the neglect experts detect in the use of international law to help protect public health. Much of the analysis about the neglect of international law in public health focuses on the World Health Organization (WHO),2 which is the specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international health.3 This focus on WHO's attitude toward international law is important, but it can produce a distorted picture of the relationship between international law and public health if a wider frame of reference is not used.4 The contributions of international environmental law to the protection of public health illustrate the importance of a more comprehensive understanding of international law's role in national and global public health.5

The discipline of "public health" concentrates on population health as opposed to individual health.6 The focus on population health can be seen in such classic public health concerns as infectious disease control. A key public health principle is prevention of morbidity and mortality in populations.7 Preventing illness and death requires reducing a population's exposure to health-damaging substances, organisms, and events.

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