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Editorial published in the EEA Newsletter, June 2022
Environmental pollution impacts our health and quality of life. The European Environment Agency’s assessments have highlighted these impacts and the potential gains we could get from a cleaner environment. We can prevent some cancer cases; we can improve our quality of life with every action we take towards zero pollution in Europe.
Health problems and premature deaths do not only impact those directly affected, but also families, friends and health providers who care for the sick. Every premature death is a loss of a family member; every sick day is a missed day at school or at work as well as a nursing or treatment day for the caregivers.
The human suffering and economic costs of premature deaths and diseases are a heavy burden for individuals, families, and societies alike.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable we can be when faced with a wide-reaching health crisis. Environmental pollution is an equally widespread health crisis, just with a slower onset.
Environmental pollution impacts our health and quality of life
The EEA has published many assessments looking at environmental pollution and its health impacts. Our latest air quality report shows that decades of action on air pollution have significantly improved air quality across the continent. This has led to a reduction in premature deaths due to air pollution but still around 300,000 people per year continue to lose their lives prematurely in the EU due to exposure to a single air pollutant — fine particulate matter. More than half of these premature deaths could be avoided if EU Member States reduced their PM2.5 levels to WHO guidelines.
Our assessments also show that the environmental burden of disease is not distributed equally across Europe and population groups. It is not surprising that in areas where environmental pollution is high, so are its health impacts. Similarly, in areas where pollution and exposure levels have been reduced we also see health improvements.
Some regions and groups, such as young children and the elderly, are more exposed to pollution and prone to suffer health impacts due to different vulnerabilities. Long-term suffering from a disease can significantly deteriorate one’s quality of life not only physically but also economically and socially. The pandemic period and its lockdowns have also shown how vulnerable many of us can be when experiencing isolation or long-term ailment.
Cleaner environment, healthier people
The good news is that a lot of this environmental burden of disease can be avoided when we take action to improve the state of environment and move towards zero pollution. Later this month, the EEA will publish an assessment looking at cases of cancer and its environmental determinants. Our study looks at a wide range of pollutants and shows that a significant share of cancers in Europe are linked to environmental and occupational exposures. This means that these cases of cancer can be prevented if we take stronger action to reduce pollution.
The new assessment is the first in a series of reports focusing on health gains resulting from improvements in the environment. The EEA’s work in this area will continue with assessments on cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which we plan to publish later this year and next year.
In the coming weeks, we will update our city air quality viewer, which clearly shows that some cities have much cleaner air than others. We are also assessing the evidence on how air pollution affects children and what can be done to protect them. Noise is another pollutant of concern in cities, some of which are succeeding in reducing noise pollution and securing quiet spots in urban green areas. All this information will be brought together in an environmental health atlas, also to be published in the first half of next year.
Our work on environmental determinants of poor health in Europe is closely connected to our work on zero pollution, for which we are planning to publish a baseline assessment on the targets set by the EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan. One of the key elements of this action plan is to prevent pollution at its source rather than tackling it afterwards, which would help prevent negative impacts both on human health and the environment. Our baseline assessment will not only look at the links with health, but also at links with ecosystems as well as societal systems of production and consumption.
Every action and investment to reduce pollution in line with the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan will improve the health of all of us and the health of our environment. In the end, the best treatment is prevention.