Respiratory disease kills 1 in every 2000 babies in Europe

In some countries in the WHO European Region, 1–5 infants per 1000 still die from respiratory diseases, with the highest rates in the east. Outdoor air pollution (such as fine particles emitted by vehicles, from burning solid fuel or tobacco smoke) and indoor air pollution due to dampness are significant contributing environmental factors. Children’s exposure to these factors remains unacceptably high.

Human activity – transport, energy production, many other industries and domestic heating – creates a form of air pollution called particulate matter (PM). Young children are particularly vulnerable to PM, which affects how the lungs work and develop, as well as contributing to asthma, bronchitis and acute respiratory infections. In adults, exposure to man-made PM leads to a loss of 9 months of life expectancy on average across the Region. Full implementation of current legislation is expected to reduce PM’s impact by a third, but the implementation of all possible measures could cut current pollution levels by half.

The health effects of dampness include allergies and asthma. Indoor moisture enables the growth of moulds, fungi and bacteria, and speeds the breakdown of building materials that release chemicals into indoor air. Poor building construction and maintenance, and activities such as cooking and washing, combined with poor ventilation, contribute to the level of dampness in a home. In some countries in the European Region, more than a quarter of people live in damp conditions. Simple preventive measures can reduce indoor dampness and the risk of exposure to the indoor air pollution it creates, but more work is needed to implement them.

Residents of up to 50% of homes in the European Region burn solid fuel – coal or wood – for cooking and heating. Research indicates that air pollution in most of these homes exceeds limits set down in WHO air quality guidelines, which can lead to pneumonia, chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer and asthma. Women and children, who spend most time at home, are particularly at risk.

Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

In 2004, the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health adopted the Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE), which includes four regional priority goals to reduce the burden of environment-related diseases in children. The third goal is to prevent and reduce respiratory diseases due to outdoor and indoor air pollution, thus helping to reduce the frequency of asthma attacks and ensuring that children can live in environments with clean air.

WHO has investigated the Region’s progress towards reaching the regional priority goals. WHO/Europe published the findings in a series of fact sheets that will contribute to discussions at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, to be held in Parma, Italy on 10–12 March 2010.