The ISAMB participates in several health plans. It is now about 7 years old and was born in a public health matrix. The main objective of this FCT Research Unit is to combine public health principles with the concepts of environmental health. The institute is organized into several research groups: two dedicated to infectious and non-infectious diseases, two related to public health and health promotion, and one dedicated to epigenetics. It also has two research laboratories, which carry out cross-sectional work, also supporting the various research groups, one directed towards microbiology and the other associated with environmental health behaviours, that is, how behaviours determine health, of people and of the environment, from various perspectives, for different types of health problems that affect humans.
Osvaldo Santos is a guest assistant at the FMUL and a researcher at ISAMB. In this institute, he coordinates the EnviHeB Lab (Laboratory of Environmental Health Behaviour) and participates, together with Margarida Gaspar de Matos, in the Behavioural Science Task Force, created by the government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Osvaldo Santos, the concept of environmental health still needs to be better defined, “having as its object of study the complex interactions between human health and environmental health. ISAMB does not only focus on analysing how the environment determines human health. IT also assesses the opposite: what impacts human behaviour and efforts to maintain human health in the environment”.
According to Osvaldo Santos, when studying the relationship between the environment and human health, the environment must be understood from a more global point of view and not only from a physical, chemical and biological perspective. It is also important to look at its social and economic dimensions and also at the different contexts, work and school, for example, because all this environmental complexity has an impact on human health. He adds that the digital environment is an environmental dimension that has been given less attention, “we spend most of our awake time looking at a screen and therefore we have to think about what impact that digital environment has on human health”.
One of the central aspects of the research carried out at ISAMB has to do with human behaviour. One of the distinguishing features of this institute is to think that behaviour is at the basis of environmental health and, of course, human health. “Most mortality and morbidity, especially when it comes to chronic illness, is associated with behaviour. Most environmental health problems have to do with human behaviour, that is, with the way how people interact with the environment. All our behaviours result in actions that affect environmental health”.
Climate change has been one of the topics that have been widely discussed and raise some concerns about the emergence of new diseases. Osvaldo Santos explains some of the natural phenomena involved.
Mental health is also associated with changes in the environment. Anxiety disorders, as well as depression and other mental health problems, especially aggravated in the case of the elderly population, also depend on the environments with which we come into contact. For example, older people are more isolated when it is colder. This also results in less cognitive stimuli, which are essential for mental health and to reduce psychological distress.
But let's not just talk about negative aspects. There are several research works that show that contact with green or blue spaces (namely, water areas in an urban context) promotes more psychological well-being. Therefore, we must try to be in frequent contact with these types of spaces.
What new diseases could arise due to climate change?
Asked about the measures that should be taken to stop the advance of climate change, Osvaldo Santos answers from the perspective of a psychologist, "it is necessary to change behaviour". In this case, the behaviour he refers to is behaviour that promotes human health and environmental health at the same time. As simple examples, he highlights the conditions (in an urban context) that encourage walking or cycling, which is beneficial to human health and to the environment. And this is what he intends to convey, “finding a behavioural change that is understood by people as beneficial for themselves and for the environment. If we use the discourse only directed to the environment, we will not be successful, because we are talking about large-scale aspects, in terms of space and temporality, and the human species is not very good at thinking on a large scale”. He adds that we talk a lot about agreements to solve the problem of climate change, but he argues that we need to think globally. In addition to national plans, it is important to create a truly global plan, on a global scale, for health. Human health based on planetary health.
From COP26, an alert emerged: if we do not implement concrete measures in the next few years, the planet could heat up to 2.4 degrees Celsius. Osvaldo Santos speaks of the implications that this warming can have on the planet and, more specifically, on Portugal, starting with the Algarve.
There continues to be a gap between environmental health and human health, but Osvaldo Santos states that the two concepts are interconnected, adding that Aristotle was one of the first to speak about environmental health. And he quotes him: “For Aristotle, everything in the cosmos has a specific function, which contributes to harmony: birds have a function, the wind has its own role, etc., but unlike everything else, each one of us, humans, has to find out what our role in the world is. Therefore, people can make nature sick because they have the ability to prevent it from fulfilling its role with excellence”.
We showed the previous video and the possibility of the human species being endangered was questioned. Osvaldo Santos declares that, “Nothing is eternal. Planet Earth itself is doomed to disappear. Therefore, if measures are not taken and if we are not able to adapt by implementing global plans, the extinction of humankind is clearly not out of the equation”.
Find out about some of the projects that ISAMB carries out and all its initiatives, through the official website.