Original Articles

By Dr. Csaba Varga
Corresponding Author Dr. Csaba Varga
Dept. Environmental Health, University of Pecs, - Hungary 7624
Submitting Author Dr. Csaba Varga

History, Environment, Political Changes, Wars, Public Health, Injustices

Varga C. A History-Based Environmental Health: On the Frontiers of Ecology, Public Health and History. WebmedCentral ECOLOGY 2011;2(3):WMC001701
doi: 10.9754/journal.wmc.2011.001701
Submitted on: 07 Mar 2011 01:23:17 PM GMT
Published on: 08 Mar 2011 05:50:32 PM GMT


Possible interactions of the historical-political events and environmental hygienic circumstances can outline the central subject of a novel – history based – interdisciplinary environmental health. The author cites several examples from the human history when both the environment and the human health were impacted by wars, revolutions, occupations, territorial changes, etc. The examples taken predominantly from the European history of the 20th century indicate the importance of the new attitude.
Performing research on relations of the environment and human health a dilemma has often arisen: development of diseases is (also) determined by social factors beside biotic and abiotic environmental ones. This issue is studied by social medicine, ab ovo. But social medicine is not focused on how historical-political events affect human health via changes of environment, in not sensu stricto topographic [End Note 1] meaning. What events of the past can be recognized in the background of the recent environmental situations and how can they define the present international and intergovernmental relations? However, these basically historical problems often appear in the present attitudes of certain countries to the common natural environment.
Two basic questions markedly indicate the subject of a new conception of history based interdisciplinary Environmental Health (Varga 2009):
– How can environmental health or hygienic factors impact the human history or can they determine it?
– Are there any effects of historical events on the environmental hygienic circumstances?
Several, partly independent topics can be considered in this field, for example the environmental (esp. physical and chemical) pollution that is not a typically contemporary challenge. Biological factors should be mentioned studying correlations among communicable or non-communicable diseases, and wars or other military, political events (revolutions, territorial changes). Genetics can play role in the long-term evolution of history, as well.
Let us see some distinct examples of world history to prove these statements.
Infectious diseases and susceptibility of populations
Why was the European “white man” so successful in certain historical periods and was not other time and elsewhere? Outbreaks initiated by the colonizers could play crucial role in conquests of the Caucasian race. Prehistoric spread of mankind encountered basically geographical barriers allowing only few individuals to get across. Beside the consequential decrease in genetic diversity, these individuals did not carry the majority of characteristic pathogens and parasites of the species, either. It was sometimes fatal to the particular populations. Their offsprings had been living through several generations in a pathogen-free environment and because of high susceptibility they became the victims of epidemics initiated by the colonizers [End Note 2]. That is, European colonizers conquered each continent in military sense, while biological prevalence (habitat) of the Caucasian race is much more moderate. In America, the conquerors were aware of the specific situation and they applied this knowledge. Sometimes, however, the tactics backfired, e.g. during the war of independence in Haiti, where the French army faced to the more resistant population of African origin to yellow fever (Rózsa 2005).
Later, the pathogens and parasites determined the outcome of revolutions and wars. During the Russian revolution, there was an outbreak of typhus (transmitted by lice) so severe that Lenin remarked: "Either socialism will defeat the louse, or the louse will defeat socialism." (HistoryHouse 2010). If the ectoparasites had won that time, mankind could have saved much more human sacrifices later.
In 1848-49, one of European revolutions, the Hungarian revolution and war of independence was beaten by the Habsburgs, with help of the Russian tsar. But Hungary did not only yield to superior number of the Russian army, but also to cholera came from Russia with the 200 000 soldiers (Varga 2009).
But it is unnecessary to go back to the 19th century. The history of the modern wars is simultaneously the history of outbreaks, inasmuch as, up to the WWII mortality of communicable diseases has been higher than mortality of direct military actions (Molnár 2009).
Wars also have a well-known specialty, since they can markedly change basic demographic parameters. Armies consist of males; therefore sex ratios alter evidently following the war. But artificial genocides also occurred during history, when the primary goal was the liquidation of a nation (Armenian and Jewish holocaust). Stalin also tried it with the Ukrainian nation by starvation, in 1932-33. For the further examples one can look up the historical works written about CEE (Central/Eastern Europe) (Polish officers’ tragedy in Katyn, genocide of Hungarian civil population by Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, etc.). Examples are not restricted to dictatorships. After WWII, the brave democratic-bourgeois state of Czechoslovakia behaved against own German and Hungarian minorities sometime more barbarously than the Nazis did with their war enemies (Dedina 2001.).
Environmental pollution
History of air pollution has also been saturated with politics. Even during the Peloponnesian war (BC 430, Sparta vs. Athens) as a progenitor of chemical weapons, sulfur and asphalt was ignited generating bulk of smoke and sulfur dioxide at the assault of Plataies (Karatzas 2000). This type of armament steadfastly went on till the 20th century; indeed, research has not stopped even up to now…
Water has also been involved in the ‘military’ environmental pollution issue. After the WWII, the winners dumped some 50 000 tons of German chemical weapons in the Baltic Sea. Saline water corroded the containers and the viscous product reached the shore initiating environmental catastrophe and severe health impacts (see: MERCW Project 2010).
Not only chemical but physical pollution was also function of the historical or contemporary political hostilities. Let us remember the nuclear tests during cold war and their impact on background radiation (nuclear tests at the Bikini Atoll, French Polynesia, etc.). During the Soviet A-bomb experiments in Kazakhstan, soldiers were directly exposed to the explosion and radiation to measure the human effects! (Elegant 2002)
Beside the air, quality and quantity of water may be also strategic weapon for some powers. During the history, lack of water became ‘casus belli’ primarily among desert countries, but manipulation with rivers is an éclat example of the nature transformation of Stalinism. How many people were killed in the Gulags in building of White Sea Canal or turning of Soviet Central Asian rivers like Ob and Yenisei (Solzhenitsyn 1973)? The fate of the Aral Sea [End Note 3] can also be mentioned. Its drying out is not only the consequence of global warming, basically caused by these manipulations. New questions have been initiated by getting dry of the Renascence (Vozrozhdeniya) Island. It was isolated earlier by the water. In this island unknown quantity and quality products of the Soviet chemical and biological armament was stored in a top-secret research center. So far, the fate of these weapons has been unknown. Well-known, however, is the high frequency of DNA-adducts in the population living in the region. Paralleled endemic aggregation of certain tumors has also been described (NatGeo 2007). The British experiments with anthrax endangered ‘only’ the Gruinard Island. The island was quarantined for 48 years (Rózsa 2005).
Environmental (in)justices and national hostilities
Environmental health research in the turn-of-the century called attention to the relationship of socio-economical deprivation and environmental pollution. Not unexpectedly, this field close to sociology generated the novel conception of ‘environmental/ecological (in)justice and (in)equality’. Some authors exactly proved that ecologically hazardous sites and facilities (hazardous waste dumps, large emitters, power plants, etc.) are disproportionately located and concentrated in communities of color and working-class communities (Faber and Krieg 2002, Shepard et al 2002). That is, lower social rank will determine lower quality of the available environment, as well. However, these interactions can both occur among countries and – on ethnic basis – even within one country (Varga et al 2002). The classical example is the multiethnic Carpathian Basin, or the whole CEE region can be mentioned. There are deep historical roots of national hostilities here: e.g. Polish–German, Polish–Lithuanian, Polish–Russian, Baltic–Russian, Russian–Ukrainian, Czech–German, Hungarian–Little Entente [End Note 4], etc.
The primary subjects of the environmental injustices are the national minorities in CEE. These minorities have mainly been products of the history of the stormy 20th century, when suddenly millions of people found themselves in another country, depending on the interests of great powers. That is, they are organic part of an existing (neighboring) nation, but frequently second class citizens of another state. (One can find such territories – both enclaves and compact zones along the borders – from the Baltic to the Balkans, in great extent [Brown 1999; Varga and Ember 2000]). Manipulated (imbalanced) industrialization was a characteristic feature of the new bourgeois states created the Paris-Versailles peace system after WWI, as well as, later of the national communist regimes ruled by such dictators as Ceausescu, Husák, Zhivkov, etc. The main political aim primarily was to change the ethnic composition of the newly harbored territories with the immigration of the national majority population [End Note 5]. Later another aspect became important: to disappear air and water pollutants rapidly towards the neighboring countries. These environmental „hot spots” exist even today, causing permanent hazard to the population of more than one country. The neighboring countries can cause potential environmental risks to each other (Varga et al 2002), see the international debates on nuclear power plants (Austria vs. Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary vs. Slovakia); atmospheric pollution (Germany vs. Poland) or river pollutions (downstream vs. upstream countries). The cross-border pollutions proliferate with the appearance of the new types of ecocolonialism (Varga 2009a). Multinational enterprises allocate their hazardous technologies (e.g. cyanide technology of gold-mining) to the CEE region, because the more developed countries have already banned them. (These actions have only been frequent in the third world, so far. Let us remember the catastrophe of Union Carbide in India.). Joining the EU did not eliminate these environmental problems, either. The scandals of Slovak redirection of Danube from Hungarian territory (Int. Court of Justice 1997) or Romanian pollution of the Hungarian Tisza River with fatal quantities of cyanide and heavy metals (European Comm. 2001) are continuously poisoning the international relations, none the less all the three involved countries became member of the EU. It is also conspicuous how more developed older EU member states export their environmental problems to the new less developed ones. Bavarian companies (Germany) illegally transported hazardous waste for dumping to Hungary. Austrian leather industry pollutes Raab/Rába River entering Hungary. West-European countries import cheap electricity from Slovakia produced by nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, built and financed just by these countries. Canadian and Australian companies plan new gold-mines in Transylvania (Romania) using cyanide technology, endangering downstream countries (Varga 2009a).
In summary, why historical environmental health research or creating such a new discipline is necessary? At first, these topics are neglected either by history or health sciences, at least in this special context, caused by not a bad attitude but rather simply lack of knowledge. This specific view namely needs specific knowledge of both sciences involved. Secondly, the gold standards of research tools and methods have not worked out yet, that would be otherwise necessary for designing really exact studies. And finally, journals are not open to publish the results of such studies. These analyses, naturally, cannot avoid political statements, as history also saturated with politics. The attitude of the journals mentioned above can be explained by different objective and subjective factors. Facts and arguments regarding the historical and recent situation (e.g. of the Balkans or the CEE region) may be so unbelievable that some editors and reviewers of international journals cannot even understand it. If, however, the particular editorial worker belongs to an involved nation in the studied affairs, dissent or resistance based on the ethnic-cultural motivation, should also be considered.
Dixi (et salvavi animam meam)


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Publications, 2001
3. Elegant R. 2002. Fallout: In Kazakhstan, the human wreckage of Soviet nuclear tests. National Rew. (Sept2, 2002)
4. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2010. Little Entente (www.eb.com)
5. European Commission. 2001. Report of the International Task Force for Assessing the Baia Mare Accident. Brussels:European Commission Environment.
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7. HistoryHouse 2010: Loosy with lice (www.historyhouse.com)
8. International Court of Justice 1997. Hungary v. Slovakia General List No. 92: Case Concerning the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Project. International Court of Justice, the Hague, the Netherlands, 25 September1997.
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10. MERCW 2010. Dumping of chemical warfare in the Baltic Sea after World War II http://mercw.org/
11. Molnár FT. 2009. Wars and Medicine. War as Endemic Trauma. In: Ember I, Molnár FT, Varga C. eds.: Historical Epidemiology [in Hungarian], pp 176-185. Dialóg-Campus, Budapest-Pécs
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[1] Environment is defined as acting environment in ecology, not only topographic one. That is, interactions of coexisting populations can also be considered as environmental factors.
[2] Founder principle is a well-known phenomenon in population genetics. A group of individuals emigrates from the population (founders) and they do not represent the complete genetic heterogeneity of the population. Certain allele variations will completely be lacking while frequency of others will significantly be altered. So the newly founded population will considerably be differed from the original one.
[3] The surface of the sea decresed to the half. The loss of fish productivity sparked a collapse of the industry and employment in this sector. In 1960, 43,430 metric tons of fish were caught in the lake, dropping to 17,400 tons in 1970, to zero tons in 1980, and remaining there until now. Since 1962, 42.000 km2 saline desert has remained in the original seabed.
[4] Little Entente: Mutual defense arrangement among Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania during the period between World Wars I and II. Based on several treaties (1920–21), it was directed against German and Hungarian interests and revenge in the Danube River basin (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
[5] For example: Bratislava (Pozsony, Pressburg) and Kosice (Kassa) in Slovakia; Cluj (Kolozsvár), Oradea (Nagyvárad) or Tg.Mures (Marosvásárhely) in Transylvania; Lvov (Lemberg) in Galicia; and later Gdansk (Danzig), Kaliningrad (Königsberg), Wroclaw (Breslau) in Prussia.

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