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By Genon K. Jensen, HEAL’s Executive Director

Adapted from speech given at high level event on ‘A healthy environment for healthy lives’, EU Green Week 2021

Almost 20 years ago, HEAL started off with the work on and vision of a healthy planet for healthy people.

It is a major achievement for environmental health groups to see today a narrative even more powerful and concrete in what the EU is aiming for: ‘Zero Pollution for healthier people and a healthy planet’. If delivered, it will be a huge step forward, for our health and that of future generations. 

Initially we were excited to see the emphasis that is placed on health and tackling pollution in the EU Green Deal, with Zero Pollution at its core. 

So we set out 3 key principles that the Zero Pollution Action plan needed to feature for optimal (or any) success: Beat pollution today to prevent disease tomorrow, for everyone. And that by ensuring: 

  • Zero harm from pollution
  • Zero money for pollution 
  • Zero delay in stopping pollution 

Upon its release, we assessed the Zero Pollution Action Plan against our 3 demands. All the buzz words are there, including recognising the magnitude of the pollution and health challenge, vulnerable groups and health inequalities.

However, while the European Commission provides an accurate assessment of the problem, the Zero Pollution Action Plan itself is lacking in adequate and ambitious actions. For health groups, the disappointment is increasing with the fact that the European Commission gets the analysis right, but then doesn’t propose the appropriate action.

Acting on the pollution crisis has to be now, it has to be done with binding and enforceable legislation and it has to be guided by the latest science. Everything else is not doing justice to truly protecting people’s health and the ecosystems upon which we depend.  

Here are 3 ways for actions to protect health from pollution:

First, we need urgent alignment of the EU’s air quality standards to WHO recommendations and the latest science: Europe’s burden from air pollution is unacceptably high, and is entirely preventable. We are expecting stricter air quality standards in the revised air quality legislation. Everyone will benefit, especially the majority of Europeans living in cities.

Second, as one of the first pillars of the Zero Pollution objective to be delivered,  the urgent and ambitious implementation of the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is our golden ticket to prevent disease and to support the EU Beat Cancer Plan.

We know chemical pollution is a huge long term challenge, as some toxic chemicals can last forever in the ecosystems, once they have been released, and our exposure to toxic chemicals will influence our health over an entire lifetime. This is the case of the group of PFAS chemicals where the EU is now considering a restriction, and we are asking that it includes  all non-essential uses of PFAS, including fluorinated polymers.

We are also asking for urgent delivery of the commitment that EDCs will be banned in consumer products – we should not be exposed to chemicals disrupting our hormones in our personal care products, clothes or children’s toys or in any everyday item for that matter.

Third, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, for our health and the planet’s health, starting today. And we need to put our money behind this commitment and ensure that EU and national public financing excludes any fossil fuel, including fossil gas, as part of recovery and other financing.

We want clear environmental, climate exclusion criteria and zero pollution requirements for the EU recovery fund. As there are unprecedented amounts of public money made available to build back better and differently. This money has to be invested into a healthy, green and just economy, and not provide a lifeline to continuous pollution.

These are just some, very tangible action points that are at the crux of delivering the EU Green Deal’s Zero Pollution ambition and transition to a non-toxic, sustainable and circular economy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put health first and in the spotlight, where it rightly should be. 

Now we have an absolutely amazing opportunity right before our eyes to ensure that the laws and actions are aligned with health as a leading priority and the zero pollution ambition. We can beat pollution, prevent disease and improve everybody’s health and well being.  

Find here HEAL’s detailed analysis of the Zero Pollution Action Plan