A groundbreaking process: 20 years of environment and health collaboration

WHO/Andreas Alfredsson

The Parma Conference brought together over 800 participants

On the first day of the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, taking place in Parma on 10-12 March 2010, discussions focused on twenty years of collaboration between the environment and health sectors in Europe, and what has been achieved so far. Several speakers noted that the process begun in Europe is being reproduced around the world.

"For the last 20 years, since the European Environment and Health Process was first started in Frankfurt, we have made political commitments, identified new targets, used new instruments to drive action at national and international level and continued to motivate each other by exchanging experiences and know-how" said Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

Achievements

Policy developments have brought real achievements: mortality rates from diarrhoeal diseases among young children have been reduced by five times in recent years, largely through improved access to clean water and sanitation; traffic-related deaths have fallen by 40% since the early 1990s; and after a switch to unleaded petrol across most of the continent, and a subsequent 90% cut in lead emissions, lead levels in children's blood have dropped.

"At the international level, intersectoral collaboration has long since been recognized as a fundamental element of public health strategies. But there are not many practical examples of such collaboration and they do not claim any major successes. The collaboration between the sectors of health and environment, on the other hand, is a success story," commented Professor Ferruccio Fazio, Italian Minister of Health.

Challenges

Although progress has been made, speakers emphasized that much remains to be done. Environmental risk factors are now amplified by financial constraints, broader socioeconomic and gender inequalities and more frequent extreme climate events. Over 20% of households in many Member States report damp problems. One fifth of people living in urban areas are exposed to dangerous levels of night noise of over 55 decibels. In Italy, accidents account for 4 500 deaths and 130 000 hospital visits annually. 

"A new challenge is protecting children from extreme weather, floods and droughts. These events are affecting Europe more often. We must be prepared to tackle global emergencies," said Ms Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian Minister of Environment, Land and Sea.

"Greening the health sector"

Several speakers encouraged the health sector to lead by example and work on ways to improve its environmental footprint, through schemes to reduce energy use in hospitals, for example. Similarly, other speakers recognized that focusing on policies that encourage sustainable development and economic growth will also promote health.

Inequalities

Many speakers noted that inequalities between and within countries, and among certain groups, are a major challenge to achieving lasting progress on environment and health issues. "Socially disadvantaged groups bear the greatest burden of exposure to environmental hazards but we also know that disease incidence rates and exposure to health and environmental risks follow a clear social gradient across the whole of the society. These disconcerting trends and statistics - and the evidence that preventive policies do work - form a very strong basis for a renewed strategic alliance between the environment and health sectors", commented Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

Outside the Conference hall

Despite heavy snow in Parma, particularly unusual for March in Italy, participants ventured beyond the Conference hall to explore the exhibition stands and take part in numerous side events and discussion sessions covering subjects such as safe water and sanitation in schools, environmental influences on children's respiratory health, social inequalities in occupational health, and preventing injuries in Europe.

Also on the agenda

As the Conference continues, further sessions will discuss national policies on environment and health, working with partners and stakeholders, and investing in environment and health through international financing mechanisms.