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16 Feb, 2012

WHO Expands European Centre to Monitor Health Impact of Environment; Poor Worst Hit

Copenhagen and Bonn, 14 February 2012 (World Health Organisation) — One citizen out of five dies from environment-associated diseases in the WHO European Region. The environmental burden of ill health varies significantly across the Region, however, ranging from 14% to 54%. Within countries, the poor can be exposed to environmental risks five times more often than their wealthier peers, a new WHO report concludes.

The report on environmental health inequalities in Europe is the latest product of WHO/Europe’s  European Centre for Environment and Health, which today launches its expanded operations in Bonn, Germany, 10 years after its opening in 2001.

“We live in a constantly changing environment that prompts us to be innovative in our work and adapt our strategies to it. That’s why we are grateful to the German Government for supporting enhanced work on environment and health, as this is a priority for WHO,” says Ms. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “I envisage the renewed Centre as a regional hub of excellence, supporting European countries in providing healthy environments to all their people – and, I emphasize, to all their people, equally.”

“We are increasing our financial support to the European Centre because the environment has a major impact on human health. We want WHO to be even more active in this field and support our policy-making with data analysis and recommendations,” says Dr Norbert Röttgen, Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany.

“Preventive health protection requires that we act today, so that coming generations will have a healthy world tomorrow. To this end, we must include all stakeholders so as to identify joint measures and strengthen our health care systems. The expanded WHO Centre in Bonn is an important step in this direction,” says Mr Daniel Bahr, Federal Minister of Health of Germany.

New WHO European Centre for Environment and Health (ECEH)

Over the years, the Bonn office has coordinated the collection and analysis of scientific evidence on exposure to environmental risks and health effects, to underpin policy-making. It:

  • estimated that, on average, each European citizen loses 8.6 months of life expectancy due to levels of air pollution higher than those recommended by WHO;
  •  concluded that traffic-related noise accounts for over 1 million healthy years of life lost annually in western Europe; and
  • found that inadequate housing accounts for over 100 000 deaths per year in the European Region.

The WHO guidelines produced by ECEH support policy-making in Europe and other regions of the world.

Thanks to the additional funding from Germany, ECEH is broadening the scope of its work on four main areas: climate change and sustainable development, exposure to key environmental risks (air pollution, noise, chemicals, radiation, inadequate working conditions and poor housing), environmental health intelligence and forecasting, and the management of natural resources, including water and sanitation.

The programmes addressing these areas will strengthen their work on the nature and magnitude of current and emerging environmental health hazards, to assist European countries in making and carrying out policies to address them, including during environmental emergencies.

ECEH provides scientific and organizational support to the European process on environment and health initiated by the First Ministerial Conference in Frankfurt, Germany in 1989. For over 20 years, the process has ensured political commitment from all countries to address environmental hazards and lead policy development and action.

The poor: greatest exposure to dangerous environmental factors

In a time of financial constraints and broadening sociodemographic inequalities, a unique area of ECEH’s work is to offer countries new evidence and policy options to tackle the unequal distribution of environmental health risks.

All European countries show disparities in exposure to environmental factors between the rich and the poor. WHO’s new report on environmental health inequalities enables countries, for the first time, to identify priorities for national action based on concrete data. For example, within the European Union (EU) alone, around 80 million people live in relative poverty: with incomes below 60% of the national median income level (1). Many of these people live in damp housing, with insufficient heating and inadequate sanitary equipment.

In the new EU countries, the lowest-income population reports having no bath or shower at home 13 times more often than the richest, and almost 7 million poor people have this problem in the EU as a whole. Worse, however, over 16 million people in relative poverty cannot afford to heat their homes in winter. Similar results are found for exposure to noise and second-hand smoke, and the incidence of various injuries.

The report indicates, as priorities for national action, environmental health risks that are greater and more unequally distributed in one country than in others.