Director-General

Meeting of Health and Environment Ministers of the Americas

Opening Session

Mar del Plata, Argentina
16 June 2005

Honourable Ministers,

I am sure many of you have read the book "Silent Spring". It is a book that was written 40 years ago but it is outstanding to see how little has changed and how similar the situation is now as it was then. We need to convince our political leaders to read this book. That would really provide a practical contribution to what we are trying to achieve today.

This beautiful setting in the land of the pampas and the selvas provides an inspiring environment for our discussions.

It reminds us that we depend on ecosystems for the air we breathe, our drinking-water, our nutrition and the sources of our medicines. Human health needs a well-balanced natural environment, and that balance is under increasing threat from new technologies, transport, trade and urbanization.

Globally, and here in the Americas, we are still grappling with many traditional environmental illnesses such as diarrhoea from unsafe water, respiratory infections from indoor air pollution, and vector-borne diseases. Children are the main victims of all these hazards.

At the same time, we confront emerging challenges to health. Noncommunicable diseases increase with exposure to toxic substances in soil, air and water, and with unbalanced diets. Unhealthy transport systems increase air and noise pollution in cities, as well as the risk of traffic injury.

At the same time, environmental problems generated locally affect health across the planet. This is all related. Conversely, global environmental changes have a major impact on local conditions. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, extreme weather events resulting from climate change, and loss of traditional food sources are problems that require global as well as national and local solutions. All in all, WHO estimates that approximately one-quarter of the deaths and illness that occur globally are caused by modifiable environmental factors. The burden falls mainly on vulnerable population groups. It can be dramatically reduced if we take the appropriate actions.

Political will makes those actions possible. Your gathering here today as Ministers of Health and Environment or Ministers of Health or Ministers of Environment represents a real opportunity to join forces at the regional level and turn commitment into action.

Here in Mar del Plata, you will be focusing particularly on three priorities: integrated water resources and waste management; sound management of chemicals; and healthy environments for children.

In all these areas, effective action requires close partnerships between health and environment workers globally, regionally and locally. It requires new modes of cooperation among UN agencies, national ministries, academia, the private sector, civil society, and people working at the local level.

Both health and the environment can be highly resilient when timely action is taken. Many such efforts are under way in the Americas and elsewhere to transform "vicious cycles" of pollution, disease and poverty into "virtuous cycles" of health and sustainable development.

Given your political will and our shared knowledge, we can set the course for a healthy global environment and a healthy future for the Americas. The time to take action is now.

Thank you.

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