When asked whether such environmental factors as pollution can lead to disease and health problems, the answer was a resounding yes, with 85% of the respondents voicing concerns. More than a third considered the environment very important in health concerns.
A little more than half felt that sinus problems, allergies, and childhood asthma were influenced by the environment. About a third thought the environment played a "very important" role in colds and influenza and in birth defects. Thirty-nine percent felt the same about childhood cancer. Interestingly, the numbers dropped considerably for breast cancer, to 28%, and for prostate cancer and infertility, to 20%. "I was surprised by that, too," Hearne says.
Contaminated drinking water was seen as the worst threat to public health. Fifty-eight percent said it had a "great deal" to do with the level of impact that the environment has on a person's health. Just below that was toxic waste, and 53% thought air pollution and contaminated food were large threats. Oddly enough, about one in five people said air pollution was no threat at all. About one-quarter of the respondents blamed some illnesses on "sick buildings" (indoor air pollution).
According to the researchers' report, financial support for the public-health infrastructure has decreased since 1981. Yet, Hearne says, public health accounts for 25 out of the 30 years of increased longevity for Americans since the beginning of the last century.
"It's not actually medical interventions that have gotten us there; it's been very basic public health activities," Hearne tells WebMD. She mentions clean drinking water, sanitation, and food-inspection systems. "Those kinds of basic, very prevention-based approaches have led to 25 years added on to our life expectancy. People don't get that, though; they keep thinking it's the silver bullet that comes ? from treatment."
Hearne says one reason for that misperception is that public health is a "quiet" system, which does its work unobtrusively. In addition, people in the system are not used to clamoring for money, even as new and unforeseen challenges continue to arise. "Some of the issues facing the country, with the health challenges, we're not really prepared to deal with," she says.