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HEAL backs 10 guiding principles and call to tackle an invisible killer

PRESS STATEMENT

Brussels, 1 March 2012

HEAL backs 10 guiding principles and call to tackle an invisible killer

The Health and Environment Alliance has supported a call from European lung experts for cleaner outdoor air to tackle an “invisible killer” (1).

HEAL joins the authors’ recommendation of stronger EU air quality legislation and calls on EU and national leaders to also respond to this public health threat by also adopting more ambitious climate policies.

In the editorial published today in the European Respiratory Journal (2) by members of the Environment and Health Committee of the European Respiratory Society (ERS), ten guiding principles summarise the evidence linking air pollution to ill-health and provide guidance for policy makers. (3)

The respiratory health experts call for stronger air quality legislation to improve public health. Their paper says that exposure to poor outdoor air quality reduces the average European’s life expectancy by 8.6 months. The effect of fine particles in ambient air leads to an average loss of life per person ranging from three months in Finland to more than 13 months in Belgium.

The final principle highlights the urgent need for EU action to reduce air pollution so that the “significant adverse effects on the health of European citizens” can be avoided. It concludes that the “benefits of such policies outweigh the costs by a large amount”.

“We welcome this call from lung health experts for greater regulation on air quality,” says Genon Jensen, Executive Director of HEAL. “Outdoor air pollution is one of the biggest environmental health threats in Europe today. If air quality could be improved to the levels in the EU country with the cleanest air – Finland – it would extend average life expectancy by up to 10 months per person.”

The 10 guiding principles are relevant not only for air quality but also for climate policy. One of the principles makes clear that the effects of summer heat waves will be particularly significant for ozone levels.

Because global warming will lead to more heat waves in Europe, periods of hot temperatures and high levels of air pollutants will act in synergy to produce more serious health effects than those expected from heat or pollution alone.

However, strong action to mitigate climate change, such as a higher target on greenhouse gas emissions to 30% by 2020,(4) would help counter this problem. This is because reductions in greenhouse gases also lead to a reduction of other air pollutants, such as fine particles, sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, which are air pollutants that cause major problems for health in Europe. Climate change action reduces air pollution because the processes by which these substances are emitted are the same as those that produce carbon dioxide (CO2). For example, the burning of fossil fuels and the combustion of a car engine emit both CO2 as well as hazardous air pollutants.

“EU leaders can respond immediately to this public health alert from over 11,000 respiratory experts by backing more ambitious climate targets. We also hope it encourages health and finance ministries to see greater climate action as an investment with significant dividends for public health and well-being“ Ms Jensen adds.

Contacts:

Genon K. Jensen, Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance, Tel: +32 2 234 3642, Email: genon@env-health.org, www.env-health.org

Notes:

[1.] Press release, European Respiratory Society, 1 March 2012

[2.] Brunekeef B. et al, Editorial: Ten principles for clean air, European Respiratory Journal, 2012; 39: 1–1 DOI: 10.1183/09031936.00001112

[3.] 10 Principles for Clean Air, http://www.ersnet.org/images/stories/DOC/ERS10CleanAirPrinciples.pdf(first published September 2011 on website of European Respiratory Society)

1. Citizens are entitled to clean air – just like clean water and safe food.

2. Outdoor air pollution is one of the biggest environmental health threats in Europe today leading to significant reductions of life expectancy and productivity.

3. Fine particles and ozone are the most serious pollutants. There is an urgent need to reduce their concentrations significantly.

4. Roadside pollution poses serious health threats that cannot be adequately addressed by regulating fine particle mass or ozone. Other metrics such as ultrafine particles and black carbon need to be considered in future research and so inform further regulation.

5. Non‐tailpipe emissions (from brakes, tyres, road surfaces etc.) pose a health threat for road users and subjects living close to busy roads.

6. Real‐world emissions of nitrogen dioxide from modern diesel engines are much higher than anticipated. This may expose many road users, and subjects living on busy roads, to short‐term peak concentrations during rush hours and periods of stagnating weather which may impact on health although to what extent requires further research.

7. Global warming will lead to more heat waves during which air pollution concentrations are also elevated and during which hot temperatures and air pollutants act in synergy to produce more serious health effects than expected from heat or pollution alone.

8. Combustion of biomass fuel produces toxic pollutants. This is true for controlled fires – such as in fireplaces, woodstoves, agricultural burning – as well as for uncontrolled wildfires. There is a need to assess the real health impacts of air pollution from these sources in many areas in Europe to inform on the need for better control.

9. Compliance with current limit values for major air pollutants in Europe confers no protection for public health. In fact, very serious health effects occur at concentrations well below current limit values, especially those for fine particles.

10. EU policies to reduce air pollution are needed that ultimately lead to air that is clean and no longer associated with significant adverse effects on the health of the European citizens. The benefits of such policies outweigh the costs by a large amount.

[4.] HEAL press release, 30 January 2012: Commission’s good news on health benefits should tip balance for higher EU climate target

Originally posted on 1 March 2012

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The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). We demonstrate how policy changes can help protect health and enhance people’s quality of life. Read more »

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