The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) have called upon policy-makers in the EU and wider European Region to take decisive action to clean up the air for the benefit of citizens, as improving air quality offers a huge environmental health opportunity in Europe.
Indoor and outdoor air pollution continues to be the largest single environmental health risk with 6.5 million early deaths worldwide annually , killing more than malaria and HIV combined .
In the EU-28, figures show poor air quality leads to 399,000 early deaths per year . This number is about 15 times higher than fatalities from road traffic accidents, according to the European Commission . All too often, policy-makers delay action for cleaner air – despite legal requirements and political commitments in the EU-28, including the Ambient Air Quality Directive, measures to clean up the air at national and local level have been inadequate. The region still has a long way to go to achieve truly health-protective air quality levels recommended by WHO .
“Air pollution causes noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. It also increases the risk for acute respiratory infections. While air pollution knows no borders and puts everyone at risk, those most vulnerable – pregnant women, children, the elderly, those already ill or poor– are particularly affected,” explained Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
“But the good news on this dire situation is that awareness within the public and policy-makers is rising, more and more cities are monitoring air quality and taking action to improve it. This dynamic needs to be built up. Priority should be given to those measures that will not only improve air quality, but also tackle climate change and boost the health of citizens overall.”
The health community has been at the forefront of demands for decisive and urgent action to prevent disease and ill-health from the polluted air that we breathe, particularly in cities, where the majority of people suffers from poor air. Three successful “win-win” campaign approaches are highlighted in a new textbook, entitled Nature and Public Health . WHO is working with city authorities in its Breathe Life  campaign while HEAL is leading European and global initiatives in the Unmask My City initiative , which unites doctors, nurses, public health practitioners and allied healthcare professionals in efforts to reduce air pollution.
HEAL’s Executive Director, Genon K. Jensen says: “The health impacts of air pollution are unacceptable, and they are completely preventable. The EU has shown global leadership in setting legally-binding air quality standards and a framework to tackle air pollution from all sources. However, 23 out of the 28 member states are currently breaching these standards, which are for some pollutants already less stringent than what WHO recommends. National governments need to show that they are serious about protecting our health, and initiate transformative measures now. We especially urge health ministers to become more involved in clean air measures.”
To stress the importance of tackling air pollution Europe-wide to benefit the hundreds of millions of citizens in the European Region, HEAL has sent an open letter to the health ministers as well as European Commissioners for the Environment, Climate Action as well as Health, together with key demands to make air pollution a greater priority and to work with HEAL and its network of doctors, nurses, health professionals, patient and not-for-profit health insurers in putting health into other policy portfolios affecting air quality, such as environment, energy, transport, housing and agriculture.
Elke Zander, Communications and Media Coordinator (HEAL)
+32 487 596 539
Nada Osseiran, Communications Officer (WHO)
+4179 445 16 24