Despite progress in many areas, environmental hazards continue to affect public health in the EU. Air pollution, noise, heavy metal emissions, heatwaves and cold spells continue to cause health issues and fatalities across Europe each year. Europe has put in place a wide range of policies and measures to reduce such health impacts.

Chemicals in humans and their health risks  

For many chemicals, the health impacts of long-term exposure are unknown. It is difficult to accurately assess the risks that chemicals pose to human health because of the complex mixture of chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives through the environment, products, food and drinking water.  

Human biomonitoring allows researchers to measure our exposure to chemicals by measuring their metabolites, which are the markers of subsequent health effects in body fluids or tissues. Information on human exposure can then be linked to other health data to better understand the links between chemicals and human health.

The EEA is a lead partner in the the Partnership for the Assessment of Risks in Chemicals (PARC), which includes policymakers, stakeholders, and scientists throughout the EU. Together, we are monitoring EU citizens’ exposure to chemicals and possible health effects.   

Can our environment give us cancer?

Cancer affects the lives of many Europeans. Environmental and occupational exposure to pollutants and others risks contributes significantly to the high burden of cancer in Europe. However, all environmental and occupational cancer risk factors are largely preventable. Our report provides a brief overview of the evidence on the environmental and occupational determinants of cancer in Europe and of EU policy responses.

  • Air pollution is linked to around 1% of all cancer cases in Europe and causes around 2% of all cancer deaths. Air pollutants are also linked to asthma, heart disease and stroke.
  • Radon forms naturally in rocks, soil and groundwater and contributes significantly to the increase of cancer cases in Europe. Indoor radon exposure is linked to up to 2% of all cancer cases and one in ten lung cancer cases in Europe.
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke may increase the overall risk for all cancers by up to 16% in people who have never been smokers.
  • Forever chemicals used in European workplaces and released into the environment are carcinogenic and contribute to cancer cases. These chemicals include lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, acrylamide, pesticides, Bisphenol A and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).
  • All forms of asbestos are well-known carcinogens. While the EU banned asbestos in 2005, it remains present in buildings and infrastructure, exposing workers involved in renovation and demolition work.

What if we reduce pollution...

By reducing pollution, the EU’s zero pollution action plan aims not only to protect society’s vulnerable groups over the long term, but also to improve quality of life for all.

Our zero pollution monitoring assessment includes a chapter, examining available knowledge and trends in pollution and associated impacts on health. Sub-sections provide more detailed analysis of air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, chemical pollution and soil pollution impacts on health. A collection of ‘Signals’ highlight emerging issues and other available knowledge on pollution and health.

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How is climate change affecting human health?

Extreme heat is a well-recognised hazard for human health, leading to dehydration, exhaustion, worsening of heart, respiratory and kidney diseases, and potentially heat strokes. The severity of the adverse health outcomes for individuals is determined by their age, pre-existing medical conditions and socio-economic status, and also by where they live and work.

Heat waves are also linked to increased exposure to UV radiation, which causes sunburn and skin cancer.

Infectious diseases are increasingly posing risks to human health under climate change – both those already established in Europe and becoming more prevalent under the changing climate (such as tick-borne encephalitis) and those previously not endemic in Europe but present now due to climatic changes (such as dengue).

Extreme weather events, such as floods and wildfires, lead to injuries, diseases and fatalities. Allergic reactions to pollen are an important cause of sleep disturbance, impaired mental well-being and decreased quality of life, productivity loss or lower school performance for children, and associated healthcare costs.

In addition to all physical impacts, climate hazards affect our mental health and may reduce our capacity to work.

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