Poor environmental quality contributes to one in every eight deaths of Europeans, according to a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) on Tuesday (8 September).
As a result, in the EU, it is estimated that over 20 million healthy ‘life-years’ are lost annually because of diseases linked to environmental pollution, most notably cancer, heart disease, pulmonary disease and stroke.
“There is a clear link between the state of the environment and the health of our population,” said EU commissioner for environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius.
“Everyone must understand that by taking care of our planet we are not only saving ecosystems, but also lives, especially the ones who are the most vulnerable,” he added.
Air pollution has the most significant impact on health, leading to 400,000 premature deaths yearly, according to the EEA.
Their research also links air pollution exposure to a higher Covid-19 death rate.
But noise comes second, causing 12,000 premature deaths annually. Both air and noise pollution are largely attributable to increasing road traffic and industrial activities.
Moreover, climate change is also considered a key driver of the environmental burden of disease and mortality in Europe. Heatwaves alone could cause an additional 130,000 deaths per year in the EU under current global-warming scenarios.
The EEA report also warns about the negative health impact of chemical exposure, which is considered a matter of public concern in the EU due to the increasing volume of substances used in production.
In 2018, more than 70 percent of the 314 million tonnes of chemicals consumed in the EU was considered harmful to humans.
West vs East – again
Meanwhile, the report highlights that the burden of environmental disease is unevenly spread geographically and socially across Europe – with visible differences between western and eastern Europe.
Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary have the highest number of deaths per 100,000 attributable to the environment (between 17 and 22 percent), while Sweden has the lowest number (between nine and 11 percent).
Additionally, the EEA found that higher levels of exposure to environmental stressors and a higher burden of health impacts exacerbate existing health inequities.
“Poorer people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and extreme weather, including heatwaves and extreme cold. This is linked to where they live, work and go to school, often in socially deprived urban neighbourhoods close to heavy traffic,” reads the report.
The Copenhagen-based EU agency calls for green solutions that can benefit the environment, health, and society, such as expanding and improving accessibility to green infrastructure in urban areas.
Clean and smart transport solutions, for example, can deliver benefits in terms of cleaner air, less noise and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, the EEA calls on member states to integrate environmental quality indicators into health policies while increasing funding resources on the prevention of diseases by promoting healthy ways of life.
However, the report also warns about the need to make the EU’s food, energy, mobility and production systems, as well as consumption patterns and lifestyles, more sustainable.
“Unless we make some fundamental changes to the key societal systems that drive environmental and climatic pressures, the prospects for our society are not positive,” the reports states.