The Environment and Health: Links, Gaps, Actions in Partnership

Speech Published 19 Jun 1999 Last modified 16 Oct 2014
Keynote speech by Domingo Jimenez Beltran, Executive Director, European Environment Agency

London, 16 June 1999

Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health - The Environment and Health: Links, Gaps, Actions in Partnership

Keynote speech by Domingo Jimenez Beltran, Executive Director, European Environment Agency

Note: The opinions expressed by the speaker are of a personal nature and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EEA, The European Commission or any other Community Institute

Dear Ministers, colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good health depends upon a good quality environment - the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat helps determine our health and quality of life. However, apart from the obvious links between highly polluted air and water, or poor sanitation systems, the links between health and the environment are complex. Consequently, the extent of public ill-health determined by poor environmental quality is difficult to quantify: can it be 2.5% for a developed country, as a recent WHO estimate for The Netherlands shows, or can it be as much as 23% all over, as a WHO global estimate shows ?

There is increasing evidence that micro-pollutants in food, water, air and consumer products may be causing or aggravating important diseases.

What to do ?

Action 1 - Improve the knowledge - Find out more, through extended monitoring, research and modelling, on the linkages between environmental hazards exposures and patterns of ill health, and of their spatial distributions.

Action 2 - Use the best available information we have already,

information which shows that in spite of, in many cases, successful environmental policies in their own right (as at EU level), and related impressive gains in reducing many environmental pressures, there is not a general and substantial improvement in Europe's environmental quality. This was the picture (full of red faces!) presented last year to the Aarhus Environment Ministers Conference.

There are many reasons for this. For example, long time lags, as with stratospheric ozone, where increases in skin cancers are only expected to peak in 2050; or because of diffuse sources of water pollution from agriculture - there being no overall substantial improvement of nitrate levels in river waters over the past 15 years - or from traffic contributing to tropospheric ozone pollution and poor urban air quality - where exceedances of health thresholds still occur across Europe.

Other, even more diffuse pressures seem to be rising such as the ones resulting from the increasing chemical intensity of the European economy. Chemicals are widespread and often populate permanently not only our economy but also, in many cases, our food chain - as now with the dioxins. As many chemicals are persistent and bio-accumulating they get widely dispersed into the air, water and food-chain - but not evenly; the distribution of these environmental exposures across the European region is not equitable - children are particularly vulnerable, and yet those who get a higher share of the exposures often get a smaller share of the benefits.

Furthermore, we know little about the risks of most of these chemicals.

But how much evidence about these risks is good enough to take preventive action? "Beyond all reasonable doubt" or on "the balance of evidence"?

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1849, just a few miles from here, the public health doctor for London, Dr. John Snow, observed an association between cholera and water from the Broad street pump. This was possibly the first environmental epidemiological study which provided good enough evidence to take action four years later when he had the pump handle remove and stopped that cholera outbreak. It was also probably the first example of the Precautionary Principle in action, and one which was very cost effective.

Nowadays, the gaps between research and policy action are greater than in Dr. Snow's day, and the links between environment and health are more complex, as shown in particular with climate change.

What can we conclude?

It is my opinion that at least where effects are likely to be serious and irreversible then:

Action 3: The Precautionary Principle needs to be used, to also avoid much greater costs in the future especially where:

there are clear secondary benefits (such as immediate health gains from reductions in fossil fuel needed to mitigate climate change); or, where there are only marginal economic gains, and no real socio-economic benefits associated with the risks (as with some anti-microbians used as growth enhancers); ... and in general where there is no need to run the risk!

With some hazardous chemicals, exposure reduction (even zero unwanted exposure) is often cheaper than looking for a "needle in a haystack", such as finding the pathways, fate (synergies) and concentrations of substances once released into the environment or identifying their contribution to complex diseases such as cancer, reproductive disorders and allergies.

Consider this - the cost of one dioxin contamination test in a chicken egg is several hundred EURO and the cost of the comprehensive toxicity testing of just one of the thousands of chemical substances in the environment is 5 million EURO!

Meanwhile, the EEA in partnership with WHO will continue to make the case for cost-effective action beyond pollution limitation and towards achieving a quality environment for European citizens by improving our knowledge, publishing early warnings and reporting on the state and prospects of the European environment.

The quality of the EU's environment is not yet satisfactory and may not yet be so in the years to come, as I will show to the EU Environment Ministers next week on the publication of our new EU environment report. We should be heading for environmental quality at European and Global level. It is a basic right, determining good health and well-being. I hope you agree.

Dear Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, I sincerely wish that as a result of this conference we may say in a few years time, and hopefully already at Rio+10, that at least:

"the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat is of sufficient quality to sustain good health and quality of life".

Thank you.

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