Day 1 of Environment and Health Conference: Taking stock of the past to transform the future

Video - Sustainable choices

Opening the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, drew parallels between the host city’s industrial past and modern regeneration, and the “transformative spirit of the Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

Convening in an auditorium within an old gasometer of the former Dolní Vítkovice ironworks in Ostrava, Czech Republic, over 450 representatives from the 53 countries of the WHO European Region and international and nongovernmental organizations are meeting to track progress and prioritize future action on environmental risks to health.

Plenary session 1: Opening

During the opening session, Miloslav Ludvík, Minister of Health, and Richard Brabec, Minister of Environment of the Czech Republic; Ivo Vondrák, Governor of the Moravian-Silesian Region; Tomáš Macura, Lord Mayor of Ostrava; Marco Keiner, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE); and Ibrahim Thiaw, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set the context for the Conference. The impact of the environment on health is undeniable, as is human impact on the environment. In the WHO European Region, at least 1.4 million premature deaths per year are attributable to environmental risk factors, with air pollution being the single most important risk factor. According to UNEP, 90% of the population breathe dirty air, leading to US$ 225 billion in lost income every year. Chemicals and waste, such as the 13 million tonnes of plastics dumped every year into the oceans, all have negative health consequences if not safely managed.

In her opening speech, Dr Jakab, underlined the gravity of environmental impacts on health, commenting, “We have sent people to the Moon and we will send them soon to Mars, but we cannot get a toilet, soap and safe water in every school or hospital in Europe”.

At municipal level, Ostrava has evolved from being the steel heart of the Czech Republic, to a healthy green city with 20% of its area occupied by green spaces. HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco , via a video address, highlighted the importance of protecting health from climate change, and that supporting health, protecting the environment and tackling climate change will require intersectoral action.

Key priority areas have been identified to drive the European Environment and Health agenda in the future, and will form the basis of the discussions over the next few days: air pollution, chemical safety, cities, climate change, environmentally sustainable health systems, water, sanitation and hygiene, waste and contaminated sites.

Plenary session 2: Status of and perspectives on environment and health in Europe: pressures on and opportunities for improvement of health and well-being

In the second session, Sir Andy Haines, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explained the links between human activities and the global environment’s capacity to provide the key services on which human existence depends in the modern climate change era. He stressed the importance of cities for future planetary health, and multisectoral sustainability, which underpins the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Many panellists, as well as comments from the floor, emphasized the need for improving information for the public as well as policy-makers, educating society and training the next generation of environmental health specialists.

Plenary session 3: Finishing the unfinished business: sound environmental policies as the most effective public health tool for a sustainable future in Europe

Session 3 assessed progress since the last Ministerial Conference held in 2010 in Parma, Italy. Dr Srđan Matić, WHO/Europe, provided an overview of progress and called for future action. For example, WHO European Member States implementing their nationally determined contributions would avoid 128 000–138 000 deaths, and make health gains equivalent of up to 1–2% of aggregate annual gross domestic product by 2030.

Professor Gina Radford, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom, reiterated the call to train more young professionals, and in addition to scale up monitoring and reporting of activities. Dr Eugenia Dogliotti of the Italian National Institute of Health noted how waste management had improved, with a greater emphasis on reuse, but yet more research was needed to elaborate on the correlations between environmental exposures and health outcomes.

Slovakia, Estonia and Serbia each presented some national examples of action on key priorities established at the 5th Ministerial Conference, namely on air quality, chemical safety, water, and sanitation and hygiene in schools.

Interventions from delegates illustrated that environmental determinants are interlinked, requiring “smart governance” approaches. They covered issues such as the human right to water and sanitation; the need for health systems to improve their environmental performance and become more environmentally sustainable; and the importance of international agreements and initiatives, such as the Protocol on Water and Health and the Transport Health and Environment Pan European Programme (THE PEP) in driving forward the sustainable development agenda. It was also noted that further work is needed to reach some targets from the previous Ministerial Conference, such as the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.

Side events

During the morning, 11 side sessions took place, prior to the opening plenary. They covered a diverse range of topics, from environmental noise to climate change adaptation. The event “Cities and regions: building environmental and social resilience in the context of the global environmental changes” was organized in partnership with the Lord Mayor of the City of Ostrava and the Governor of the Moravian-Silesian Region, along with the Czech Healthy Cities Network, the European Committee of the Regions, and the WHO Regions for Health Network.

Another side event, “Water, sanitation, hygiene and health: closing the equity gap”, organized with the UNECE and France, Hungary and Serbia, provided examples of successfully improving access to water and sanitation services. The event had a particular focus on improving access in schools.