How do changes in the environment affect human behavior and human health? Even events as traumatic as the 2010 Deep Horizon oil rig disaster left few fingerprints of mental or behavioral effects using traditional public health survey technology. Are there few effects, or do traditional methods fail to discern them? The inability of hypothesis-driven surveys to yield medical diagnoses doesn’t mean that families’ health behaviors, social or economic well-being and connection to the gulf haven’t changed in meaningful ways.
Sudden changes to local waters can create big effects. The 1993 Milwaukee cryptosporidium outbreak (from Lake Michigan drinking water) killed nearly 100 people and left an entire city on edge for years every time it rained heavily. 2014’s sudden, if temporary, loss of municipal drinking water in Toledo, OH (due to harmful algal blooms) and Charleston, WV (due to a chemical spill) indicate how fragile human health and community well-being are in the face of sudden environmental changes (which will increase with anthropomorphic climate change). Gradual changes in environmental quality, such as mercury and PCB contamination of fish and rising beach closings from sewage pollution affect large populations and major economic activities, but their effects are harder to assess.
Does environmental degradation spur diarrhea or depression, anxiety or apathy, fishing or flight? What is the time course and effect size of different types of events on both human health and human attitudes? Historians and archeologists try to answer such questions using old letters, diaries and physical evidence. Today massive new caches of information have become far more immediately available as each of us leaves a near-real time internet trail of observations (posts, photos), emotions (“likes”, emoticons and “flameouts”), actions (consuming, advocating), location changes (visiting, avoidance, in- or out-migration) and physiologic measurements (from our FitBits and Apple watches). These data are now time-stamped, geo-positioned, #hashtagged and otherwise encrusted with useful metadata. Methods to create, mine and understand such massive, untidy data are evolving as rapidly in civil society/non-profit organizations, marketing firms, and technology start-ups as in academia or government.
I was recently honored to be named US co-chair of the Health Professional Advisory Board (HPAB) of the International Joint Commission (IJC), a treaty-based organization that has been preventing and resolving US-Canada conflict over our thousands of miles of shared shorelines and waters since 1907. IJC has issued a Request for Information (due July 24, 2015) asking businesses, civil society organizations, academics, government agencies and individuals to describe or propose how to use social networking and similar internet information to study changes in human health and behavior contemporaneous with environmental change in our boundary waters. Please forward this Request for Information to anyone who might be able to contribute.