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Health introduction

Page Last modified 20 Dec 2022
4 min read
This section of the zero pollution monitoring assessment examines available knowledge and trends in pollution and associated impacts on health. In addition to this summary assessment page there are sub-sections providing more detailed analysis of air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, chemical pollution and soil pollution impacts on health. A collection of ‘Signals’ is also provided which highlight emerging issues and other available knowledge on pollution and health.

Introduction

Exposure to pollution can harm health (Figure 1), and there is clear evidence that reducing pollution leads to improved health and well-being. At present, over 10% of annual premature deaths in the 27 EU Member States (EU-27) are related to environmental pollution. A recent EEA assessment of the environmental determinants of cancer indicates that exposure to air pollution, carcinogenic chemicals, radon, UV radiation, second-hand smoke and more may be responsible for over one tenth of the total cancer burden in Europe (EEA, 2022a). Pollution’s impacts on health are likely to be underestimated: we only know about the impacts of a limited range of pollutants and only in relation to a specific set of known health effects. 

Exposure to environmental pollution varies significantly between countries: the further east, the higher the numbers of pollution-related premature deaths tend to be, as illustrated in Figure 1 below. Vulnerable people, including children and the elderly, are more sensitive to pollution; moreover, those in lower socio-economic groups tend to be exposed to higher levels of pollution (EEA, 2018).

Pollution also reduces quality of life: people live with illnesses caused by exposure to pollution, such as asthma or heart disease, for many years.

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.

Figure 1. Premature deaths and years of life lost in 2019 as a result of environmental pollution in the 27 EU Member States

Note: The left-hand maps illustrate premature deaths and years of life lost (YLL) attributable to a range of environmental pollution risk factors. The right-hand chart illustrates the non-communicable diseases linked to different environmental risk factors.  Noise is not included as a risk factor in the chart on the right as the data are not included in the IHME database.

Source: For the left-hand map, all data are for 2019 (except noise, 2017), with noise and air pollution related data based on EEA assessments. The other risk factor data are extracted from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) global burden of disease database. For the right-hand chart, all data relate to 2019 and are extracted from the IHME global burden of disease database.

 

The EU’s zero pollution action plan

The EU’s zero pollution action plan aims to address key pollution issues that negatively affect the environment and human health. It presents a vision for 2050 where pollution is reduced to the extent that it is no longer harmful. Prevention is one of the core principles underpinning the zero pollution action plan. By preventing pollution at its source, we can eliminate the risks to human health and the environment. Further information on the role of the EEA in zero pollution monitoring is available on the zero pollution monitoring home page.

Zero pollution package 2022 – new rules proposed for cleaner air and water

To strengthen the delivery of the zero pollution objectives the Commission recently proposed a zero pollution package that addresses air and water pollution. The air pollution package includes proposed new rules in relation to air quality, with key measures listed below.

  • Stricter thresholds for pollution, more closely aligned with new limits set by the World Health Organization.
  • Enhancing the right to clean air, improved access to justice.
  • Current laws do not include provisions for citizens to claim compensation for health damage due to air pollution. The new rules will bring more effective penalties and compensation possibilities for violating air quality rules.
  • Strengthened rules for air quality monitoring to support preventive action and targeted measures.
  • Requirements to improve air quality modelling, especially if and where air quality is poor.
  • Better public information.

The above measures are aligned with other legislative proposals such as the revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive and recent proposals on vehicle emission standards, which together will support delivery of the zero pollution ambition.

 

Pollution and health: summary of findings

Figure 2 presents an overarching assessment of the progress made in reducing pollution and meeting targets for air pollution, noise pollutionwater pollution, chemical pollution, and soil pollution impacts on health. Further information on each of these is presented in the relevant sections. A collection of zero pollution ‘Signals’ is also available; these provide supplementary information highlighting other important or emerging issues related to pollution and health.

Figure 2. Summary analysis of zero pollution and health

 

Guidance for interpreting the summary

The infographic above summarises the overall findings described in each of the sub-sections, on air, noise, water, chemicals and soil. Two dimensions are considered:

  1. whether the past trend in pollution is positive, negative or uncertain
  2. the current 'distance to target', based on an assessment of the current trends or status and whether or not the EU is on track to achieve the zero pollution targets for 2030 and/or other relevant policy targets.

The assessment is based on a combination of (1) available indicators and data, and (2) expert judgement. Further details of this analysis are included in each of the sections (on air, noise, water, chemicals and soil pollution), which summarise the rationale behind the finding and indicate the robustness of available data.

References

EEA, 2018, Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe, EEA Report No 22/2018, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/unequal-exposure-and-unequal-impacts/) accessed 6 October 2022.

EEA, 2022, ‘Beating cancer — the role of Europe’s environment’, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental-burden-of-cancer/beating-cancer-the-role-of-europes) accessed 5 October 2022.

Cover image source: © Evangelija Ivanoska, Well with Nature /EEA

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