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Breath of fresh air: World Health Organization Assembly tackles air pollution

On 22 May the World Health Assembly is scheduled to discuss the first-ever WHO resolution on air pollution and health.

HEAL and its members welcome this landmark resolution entitled “Health and the environment: addressing the health impact of air pollution”, and the recommendations it sets out which are key to improving the lives and health of millions of people who suffer from poor air quality, and to preventing up to 8 million early deaths globally due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

The draft resolution prepared by a number of countries including Chile, Colombia, France, Norway, Ukraine, the US and Zambia, will be considered during the 68th World Health Assembly, 18-22 May in Geneva. The resolution marks an important step for tackling health inequalities, since air pollution disproportionately affects the poor and disempowered, including women and children, and those living in low- and middle-income countries.

Air pollution remains the single largest environmental health risk. EEA’s 2015 State of the Environment report confirms that, urban air pollution is set to become the main environmental cause of premature mortality in 2050, and 75% of Europeans live in or around cities, which is projected to increase. Thus, this resolution could help bring significant benefits in achieving cleaner air to the overwhelming majority (90%) of European city dwellers who breathe in air that is considered harmful to health by the WHO. Tackling air pollution will have enormous economic benefits for European health systems. On 28 April, WHO Europe released a new economic study highlighting the costs of air pollution for 53 countries in the European region. According to this study, the approximately 600 000 premature deaths and the diseases caused by air pollution add up to an economic cost of US$ 1.6 trillion in 2010.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) has worked with its members, European Respiratory Society, European Lung Foundation and the European Federation of Allergy and Asthma to improve air quality in Europe and globally for the past 10 years. In recent years, HEAL has focused on the links between climate change, energy and air quality. With the report The Unpaid Health Bill: How coal power plants make us sick HEAL published the first ever economic assessment of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal power plants in Europe, including detailed country figures. There are clear win-wins for health, air quality and the climate from moving out of fossil fuels and into clean energy and a low-carbon economy.

The recent WHO review on the evidence-base of health effects of air pollution and the IARC classification of particulate matter as cancer causing underline that air pollution is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, asthma, lung cancer, and other illnesses including also diabetes. This latest evidence has led to a renewed engagement of the health and medical community in many countries, including France, Germany, the UK, Poland, Turkey, Serbia and Romania.

HEAL recommendations for the resolution

Given the extent of the public health challenges of current levels of air pollution, HEAL is working with its members and partners to engage with health ministries and support the World Health Organization’s unique position and leadership role in improving air quality in Europe and globally. Some of the key elements HEAL supports and advocates strengthening in the resolution include:

  • binding instead of voluntary measures, in order to achieve clear commitments from all states to act for the benefit of the health of their citizens;
  • a strong international review and oversight mechanism, including clear health benchmarks, intermediary and process-related targets as recommended in the report by the WHO Secretariat;
  • a stronger focus on the importance of a low-carbon economy and phasing out of coal, which also produce synergy effects beneficial for tackling climate change by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions; and,
  • a recognition of non-governmental organisations involvement as a key means of action.

Originally posted on 7 May 2015

About HEAL

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 »


HEAL has over 70 member organisations, representing health professionals, not-for-profit health insurers, doctors, nurses, cancer and asthma groups, citizens, women’s groups, youth groups, environmental NGOs, scientists and public health institutes. Members include international and Europe-wide organisations, as well as national and local groups. Read more »

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