How and how much the environment impacts health

Two WHO/Europe offices, the WHO European Office for Investment for Health and Development in Venice, Italy, and the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health (ECEH) in Bonn, Germany, have been recently placed in the Division of Policy and Governance for Health and Well-being. As the Venice Office coordinates the Regions for Health Network, there is a renewed opportunity to make further progress, in participating regions, in key areas such as health equity, noncommunicable diseases, environmental and social determinants of health and public health capacity.

WHO estimates that 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in unhealthy environments in 2012. "Environment is one of the most important determinants of health, as it affects not only physical, but also social and behavioural determinants. A healthy environment contributes to preventing noncommunicable diseases. Globally, 22% of deaths are caused by the environment: 17% of cancers, 25% of strokes and 44% of asthma cases," stated Marco Martuzzi, Programme Manager, Environment and Health Intelligence and Forecasting at ECEH.

The environment impacts health through many factors, including:

  • air pollution
  • inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene
  • chemicals and biological agents
  • radiation
  • community noise
  • climate change
  • agricultural practices
  • occupational risk. 

Unhealthy environments also have a large economic cost. For example, the estimated total cost of premature mortality and morbidity due to ambient fine particulate matter in the WHO European Region in 2010 was about US$ 1.6 trillion. Environmental-related topics are part of the Health 2020 framework and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The way forward 

The European strategy to build healthier environments is based on available scientific evidence and on promoting links and strategic partnerships with different actors, stakeholders and processes, fully utilizing existing policy instruments and tools. The European Environment and Health Process, a multisectoral effort lead by WHO, provides guidance on strengthening capacities to address environment and health challenges, while embracing their underlying complexity and considering the economic dimension. 

The 6th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, to take place in 2017, will bring together ministers of health, ministers of environment and many more stakeholders in the Region to evaluate progress with existing commitments and to identify the way forward.