A call for an integrated policy approach to address interlinked challenges
The European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) have published a new joint report on ‘Environment and Human Health’ that takes stock of the most pertinent environment and health issues prevailing today and their policy implications.
Recognising the systemic challenges to ecosystem resilience and services, the EEA-JRC report makes the case for a more integrated take on health issues that addresses environmental pressures, multiple exposure and burden of disease, social inequalities, resource use patterns, long-term impacts and socio-economic trends.
The issue of ‘Environment and Health’ is at the heart of environmental policy.
The key natural resources supporting human health and well-being. Source: EEA, 2011c
Environmental policies over the past decades have helped to substantially improve the state of the environment in Europe, leading to a reduction in water and air pollution, for example. However, much still needs to be done to address major environmental challenges, such as widespread exposure to multiple pollutants and chemicals and how this can damage human health in the long term. This report outlines the current understanding of environmental and health relationships, and addresses eleven specific environmental issues that are likely to have an impact on human health and well-being in Europe: chemicals, outdoor air, indoor air, radon, water, noise, electromagnetic fields, ultraviolet radiation, nanotechnology, green spaces and the natural environment, and climate change.
The report finds that the current approach to environment and health is insufficient to address interconnected and interdependent challenges, and recommends that the policy focus be widened to include social and other policy domains incorporating a broad spectrum of disciplines, values and attitudes.
- Global sales of products from the chemicals sector doubled between 2000 and 2009, and there is an increasing range of chemicals on the market, including substances affecting human health.
- There is growing concern about ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’, which affect the hormone system, found in a wide range of common products including pharmaceuticals, pesticides and cosmetics. Effects are not yet fully understood, but the chemicals may contribute to declining sperm count, genital malformation, impaired neural development, obesity and cancer.
- The report highlights evidence showing the contribution of air pollution to cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and asthma and estimates that air pollution reduces each EU citizen's life expectancy by an average of 8.5 months. Recent studies of air pollution suggest that exposure in early life can significantly affect adult health, and the effect of air pollution on pregnancy may be comparable to that of passive smoking. Up to 95% of city dwellers are still exposed to levels of fine particulate matter (PM) above World Health Organisation guidelines, the report says.
- In Europe, an increasing health concern in relation to water quality is pharmaceutical residues and endocrine-disrupting substances, which are not always fully removed by water treatment. Water shortages and water quality issues may be further exacerbated by climate change, the report says.
- Noise can seriously harm health, affecting cognitive development, cardiovascular disease and sleep. Noisy areas are often those with high levels of air pollution, and each factor seems to augment the effect of the other.
- Devices emitting electro-magnetic fields (EMF) such as mobile phones are sometimes considered a possible cancer risk, but there is no conclusive scientific evidence supporting this link. Available data are reviewed regularly by the Commission's scientific committees. The next review will be published in the second half of 2013.
- Nanotechnology applications might be an emerging risk, as little is known about the effects of nanomaterials on the human body. This will require an adequate assessment of potential risks, to guarantee the safe production of nanomaterials and their safe use in consumer products.
- Green spaces seem to have multiple physical and mental health benefits. There are significant differences in access to these areas across Europe – all cities in Sweden and Finland have more than 40% green space within their boundaries, while at the other end of the scale all Hungarian and Greek cities have less than 30% green space.