Almost 600 000 deaths due to air pollution in Europe: new WHO global report

Exposure to air pollution accounted for 7 million deaths worldwide in 2012, including almost 600 000 in the WHO European Region. This is the main finding of a new WHO report (1), released today, on the burden of disease related to ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution. Specifically, 482 000 deaths are attributable to ambient air pollution and 117 200 deaths to household air pollution in the WHO European Region. While deaths from ambient air pollution occur in all European countries regardless of their income, those from household air pollution are over 5 times greater in low- and middle-income countries than wealthier ones.

Air pollution – a risk factor for disease

Air pollution is the largest contributor to the burden of disease from the environment. Health effects are due to exposure to small particulate matter (≤10 μm in diameter – PM10), which causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well as cancer. The new estimates are based on the latest WHO data on deaths and diseases from air pollution exposure. They highlight that exposure to air pollution is a more important risk factor for major noncommunicable diseases (such as ischaemic heart disease and stroke) than previously thought.

Need to improve air quality

Science provides convincing arguments for decisive action to improve air quality and reduce related deaths and diseases in Europe. Evidence published by WHO/Europe last year (2), as part of the international project to review evidence on health aspects of air pollution (REVIHAAP), confirms that outdoor air pollution is an important risk factor for health.

These findings support the scientific conclusions of the WHO air quality guidelines and indicate that health effects can occur at air pollution concentrations lower than the guideline levels. Further, in October 2013, the International Research Agency on Cancer (IARC), a specialized agency of WHO, classified air pollution mixture and PM as carcinogenic to human beings (Group 1).

WHO/Europe’s work on air pollution

In the 2010 Parma Declaration on Environment and Health, Member States in the WHO European Region committed themselves to preventing disease by improving outdoor and indoor air quality. WHO/Europe continues to work with Member States and in partnership with other regional actors, notably:

  • the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in the context of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Transport Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP); and
  • the European Commission in the context of the revision of its policies on air quality.

The Task Force on the Health Aspects of Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, co-chaired by WHO/Europe’s European Centre for Environment and Health, will use the most recent results to intensify support to Member States that develop their policies independently from European Union (EU) processes.