Environment and health

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Page Last modified 23 Sep 2019
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A clean environment is essential for human health and well-being. At the same time, the local environment can also be a source of stressors - for example air pollution, noise, hazardous chemicals - that negatively affect health. The health of the EU population is also adversely affected by climate change, through heatwaves, floods and changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases. At a broader level, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and land degradation can also impact on human well-being by threatening the delivery of ecosystem services, such as access to freshwater and food production.

Human health and well-being are intimately linked to the state of the environment. Good quality natural environments provide basic needs, in terms of clean air and water, fertile land for food production, and energy and material inputs for production. Green infrastructure also serves to regulate climate and prevent flooding. Access to green and blue spaces also provides important opportunities for recreation and supports well-being.      

At the same time, the environment represents an important pathway for human exposure to polluted air, noise and hazardous chemicals. In their report on preventing disease through healthy environments, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that environmental stressors are responsible for 12–18 % of all deaths in the 53 countries of the WHO Europe Region. Improving the quality of the environment in key areas such as air, water and noise can prevent disease and improve human health.

Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, and is associated with heart disease, stroke, lung disease and lung cancer. Exposure to air pollution is estimated to result in over 400 000 premature deaths in the EU each year. Noise exposure from transport sources and industry can lead to annoyance, sleep disturbance and related increases in the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals is also a key concern. People can be exposed to a wide range of chemicals in their daily lives, via polluted air and water, consumer products and diet. The properties of certain hazardous chemicals cause them to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain, which means there will be a considerable time lag before reductions in emissions translate into reduced exposure. In addition, the volume and range of chemicals in use today and the ongoing growth in chemical production suggests that human and environmental exposure will continue to increase. This raises concerns about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of chemicals over our lifetime, in particular during vulnerable life stages, such as early childhood, pregnancy and old age.

The impacts of climate change also pose immediate threats to health, in terms of heat waves and shifts in the patterns of infectious diseases and allergens.

In general, bathing water quality is of a high standard across the EU, with the quality of bathing waters consistently improving over time as a result of investment in the sewerage system, better waste water treatment and the reduction of pollution from farms.

A growing body of evidence suggests that environmental risks are not evenly distributed across society, but rather disproportionally affect socially disadvantaged and vulnerable population groups. An individual’s socioeconomic status influences their exposure to environmental stressors, since poorer people are more likely to live in degraded environments. Socially disadvantaged people may be more sensitive to the impacts of environmental stressors due to pre-existing health conditions, poor nutritional status and specific behaviours, such as smoking or inactivity. They may also face constraints in adapting to and avoiding environmental risks.

Policies

Recognising the intrinsic link between the state of the environment and quality of life, priority objective 3 of the Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) aims 'to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being' (EU, 2013). The profound dependency of human society on supporting ecosystems lies at the very core of the 7th EAP vision that 'in 2050 we live well, within the planet's ecological limits'.

A broad range of policies are in place at EU level to address environmental impacts on health. Some examples from the main environmental policy areas include:

The European Environment and Health Process, led by WHO Europe, aims to bring together the environment and health sectors, and promote joint solutions, in particular to address the environment-related health goals and targets of the 2030 Sustinable Development Agenda. In the Ostrava Declaration of 2017, ministers and representatives of countries in the WHO European Region set out an intersectoral and inclusive approach towards improving environmental health.

EEA activities on environment and health

The EEA is working with partners at national and international level to build the knowledge base on the linkages between the environment, health and well-being. This includes work to explore how the environment contributes to human well-being, as well as work on exposure to and the health impacts of specific environmental stressors including air pollution, noise, chemicals and climate change. Ultimately, health outcomes result from the combination of exposures to environmental stressors over time, implying that assessments of environmental health should take an integrated approach.

The EEA is also developing a new line of work to explore how social and demographic factors influence the relationship between the environment and health. This includes assessing how an individual’s social status and age can affect both their exposure to environmental stressors and the resulting impacts on health.

Well-known environmental stressors that affect human health are subject to regulatory control in Europe, with efforts underway to reduce exposure. However, there are also emerging issues for which environmental pathways and effects on health remain poorly understood. These include issues such as anti-microbial resistance, or changes in human exposure to chemicals in products as we shift towards a circular economy and increase recycling. The EEA engages with international networks of experts to identify emerging environmental risks, including the European Commission, the WHO and the European Food Safety Authority.   

In terms of thematic work, the EEA delivers a range of assessments and indicators on air pollution, noise, chemicals and climate change adaption.

The EEA is a partner in the HBM4EU initiative. The main aim of the initiative is to coordinate and advance human biomonitoring in Europe. HBM4EU will provide better evidence of the actual exposure of citizens to chemicals and the possible health effects to support policy making.

The EEA also contributes to the European Commission’s Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring (IPCHEM), which documents occurrence of chemicals and chemical mixtures, in relation to humans and the environment.

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