United Nations agencies urge Europe’s action on 1.4 million annual deaths from polluted environments

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Cristiana Salvi
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 45 33 6837
Email: salvic@who.int

Press release

Ostrava, Czech Republic, 13 June 2017

The World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) call on European leaders to scale up action to prevent environment-related deaths and diseases affecting their populations.

Each year, at least 1.4 million Europeans die prematurely due to polluted environments; this corresponds to at least 15% of Europe’s total deaths. Around half of these deaths are due to outdoor and indoor air pollution. Altogether, European citizens lose annually 50 million years of healthy life from environmental risks.

“In the era of sustainable development, we can prevent the 1.4 million environment-related deaths by making health a political choice across all government sectors,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “We urge all European leaders to take this opportunity for more sustainable policies to address the health challenges of the 21st century.”

This call to action comes as the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health opens today in Ostrava, Czech Republic. On 13–15 June 2017, over 450 representatives from the 53 countries of the WHO European Region will gather together with international and nongovernmental organizations to sign a Declaration committing them to prioritize action on environmental risks to health by 2018.

A large portion of noncommunicable diseases is due to environmental risk factors

Environmental risk factors are responsible for around 26% of ischemic heart disease, 25% of strokes and 17% of cancers in Europe. Cardiovascular deaths and diseases from environmental exposures are three times higher in lower-middle-income countries compared to high-income countries.

Air pollution is Europe’s leading environmental killer, responsible for 620 000 deaths every year from outdoor (transport, industry, energy production) and indoor (solid fuel combustion for heating and cooking, poor ventilation, second-hand tobacco smoke) exposure.

Additional environmental factors, such as chemical pollution, noise, occupational risks, unsafe water, poor sanitation and injuries, account for more deaths and diseases. Diarrhoeal diseases caused by inadequate drinking-water, toilets and hygiene lead to 14 deaths a day – an unacceptable reality in Europe’s 21st century. Road traffic injuries kill 85 000 people per year.

Financial constraints, inequalities, extreme weather events from climate change, a rise in noncommunicable diseases, the ageing of the population, rapid urbanization and unprecedented levels of migration exacerbate environmental impacts on the health of Europeans.

Investing in cities

In 2015, for the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population was living in urban areas. By 2030, 8 out of 10 Europeans will be living in cities, where they may be exposed to multiple environmental hazards. The most vulnerable – children, people living in poverty, people at risk of marginalization, migrants – are disproportionately affected.

WHO’s new report “Environment and health for European cities in the 21st century: making a difference”, developed jointly with UNECE and UN Environment, makes the case for investing in cities as leading drivers to improve people’s health and reduce inequalities.

“Cities are essential in meeting the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and therefore action needs to focus at this level to make a difference to our health and well-being,” said Dr Srdan Matic, Coordinator for Environment and Health at WHO/Europe. “Recognizing the contribution of cities as one of the priorities at this Ministerial Conference marks a milestone, and WHO is committed to supporting all European countries as they prioritize actions for better health, well-being and environments.”

The WHO European Healthy Cities Network and the Regions for Health Network are strategic platforms for action at the local level; they provide an opportunity to strengthen joint approaches and integrate environmental, social, economic and political dimensions for improved health and well-being for all.

Committing to avoid environment-related deaths and diseases

Ostrava’s Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health is the sixth to take place in a process initiated almost 30 years ago to eliminate the most significant environmental threats to human health.

Organized by WHO/Europe in partnership with UNECE and UN Environment, and hosted by the Government of the Czech Republic, it will redefine Europe’s approach to the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. By 2018, European countries are expected to develop national portfolios for action on environment and health. These will be based on their priorities, selected among the seven outlined at the Conference: air quality; chemical safety; climate change; environmentally sustainable health systems; waste management; water, sanitation and hygiene; and cities.

The WHO European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, Germany, is a centre of excellence in this process: it provides the evidence underpinning the process, works with countries to implement their commitments, and measures progress towards their objectives.

The Conference will be a turning point, marking the first in the era of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As such, it will frame European leaders’ commitment to action on environment and health towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, while supporting the goals of Health 2020, the WHO European policy for health and well-being, to create supportive environments and resilient communities.