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Linking Ecological and Human Health: The Chesapeake Bay Health Indicators Project

January 01, 2004
CLF Report

Kristen Chossek Malecki, Polly Walker, Thomas A. Burke, Beth Resnick

The Chesapeake Bay has a profound effect on all who reside in the 64,000 square miles of the watershed. More than just an ecological treasure, the Bay has also shaped historical development patterns for homes, industry, agriculture, and transportation. It is a driver of the regional economy, a food source, and receiver of waste waters. From the time when the first settlers arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 1603, increased population growth and development within the region have led to continual degradation of the once pristine waterway. Human beings have played a critical role in altering the basic physical, chemical, and biological systems within the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, and these shifts may ultimately be putting human health at risk.

The Chesapeake Bay Health Indicators Project is part of the ongoing efforts of the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to preserve and improve both the human health and the ecological health of populations living in and around the Chesapeake Bay watershed through improved recognition of the linkage between the quality of the environment and the protection of public health.

In the last decade despite significant advancements in the assessing and monitoring of environmental quality, less progress has been made in assessing the relationship between the state of the ecological environment and its impact on human health. The first ecological assessment of the Chesapeake Bays health was completed with the signing of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983. Since the  Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed, monitoring of these ecological indicators of the Chesapeake Bay has continued, paving the way for better policy decisions and actions taken for the protection of the Bays fragile ecosystem. However, a parallel set of indicators aimed at tracking risks to the human population within the ecosystem is lacking.

The State of the Bay Report, an annual report card measuring environmental quality of the Bay prepared by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was the impetus for developing a similar report card for population health. There is a need to develop an equivalent public health tool for tracking the human health impacts of environmental degradation throughout the watershed.

The goals of this project were to examine the relationship between adverse conditions in the ecological environment and health of the human population and to develop a pilot set of regional public health indicators. This paper presents an overview of health and ecological stressors in the Chesapeake Bay region and three case examples of environmental public health indicators that represent major challenges both to the ecology of the watershed and to human health.