New report shows persistent environment and health inequalities in Europe

Inequalities in environmental exposure and injuries exist in all countries across the WHO European Region, in turn contributing to health inequity. A new WHO report launched today at the WHO High-level Conference on Health Equity in Ljubljana, Slovenia shows that intra-country inequalities in environmental exposure persist, or in some cases may have even increased. This is despite significant improvement in environmental conditions in most countries. For example, in the case of housing inequalities, poor households in western Europe report 3.3 times more difficulty in keeping their homes warm compared to non-poor households.

Environmental risk factors account for at least 15% of mortality in the Region, equivalent to about 1.4 million deaths per year, which are largely avoidable. “This report shows that disadvantaged population subgroups can have 5 times higher exposure levels to environmental risk factors than advantaged subgroups. This is a truly disturbing finding for all of us in public health,” notes Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

The reduction of many environmental health risks shows that environmental interventions are effective in preventing health impacts, but often fail to protect vulnerable populations. Therefore, country-specific and local strategies that target the most exposed population subgroups are necessary to effectively mitigate these inequalities. “National and local authorities have the responsibility to protect the weakest citizens from environmental and health risks,” explains Dr Carme Borrell from the Public Health Agency of Barcelona, a local-authority partner and expert on social determinants of health. “As a first step, it is thus necessary to understand the patterns of inequality, and identify who the most affected population groups are.”

Development of the report

This assessment report on environmental health inequalities in the European Region follows on from the baseline set in 2012 by the first assessment report, developed by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, Germany. Regional developments and renewed commitment by all Member States established in the declaration of the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health held in Ostrava, Czechia in 2017 have driven further progress, based on 19 inequality indicators.

The newly designated WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Inequalities at the Institute of Public Health and Nursing Research of the University of Bremen, Germany contributed substantially to the development of the report, and will continue to assist WHO in observing trends, changes and health impacts of environmental inequalities in the European Region.