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Air pollution ranked as top health risk factor in Europe

Brussels, 14 December 2012 – A global review of the burden of disease published today shows outdoor air quality has been recognised as a top level risk for public health. (1)

The new rankings are taken from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) assessment, which is released today in a special issue of the leading British medical journal, The Lancet. The project was completed by 450 experts in a consortium of five partners, including the World Health Organization, and led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). (1)

The study shows exposure to air pollution as one of the top ten risk factors for health globally. It is ranked 11th for countries of Western Europe, 14th for Central Europe and 15th for Eastern Europe, which includes Russia. (2)

“Everyday exposure to outside air pollution in Europe is now recognised as one of the big factors affecting our health,” says Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “For the first time, the Global Burden of Disease assessment has ranked an environmental factor among the more widely discussed ‘life-style’ risk factors, such as tobacco and alcohol.”

The Health Effects Institute, an independent, non-profit research institute in the US, played a lead role in preparing the air pollution analysis. President, Dan Greenbaum said: “Outdoor air pollution now ranks among the top global health risk burdens because earlier assessments reported much smaller figures.” He says that better modelling of population exposure and more detailed analysis of the relationship between outdoor levels of air pollution and effects on mortality and ill-health have played an important role in the revisions. (3)

In Western Europe, the new rankings show exposure to “ambient particulate matter pollution” in eleventh position. This is below top risk factors such as tobacco, alcohol, lack of physical activity and some aspects of diet but above factors such as “diet high in processed meat”, “diet low in vegetables” and “drug use”. (4)

Health burden in figures

The analysis shows over 430,000 premature deaths and over 7 million years of healthy life lost in Western, Central and Eastern Europe in 2010 from exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), with 166,000 premature deaths in Western Europe, 95,000 deaths in Central Europe, and 169,000 deaths in Eastern Europe, which includes Russia. (3)

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2020 began in 2007 and is the most comprehensive effort since the GBD 1990 to produce complete and comparable estimates of the burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors for the years 1990, 2005, and 2010 for 21 regions covering the entire globe. It is significantly broader in scope than previous versions, including 235 causes of death, 67 risk factors, and improved methods for the estimation of mortality and disability.

Overall the study results reveal substantial shifts in the burden of disease from premature mortality to morbidity and disability as well as from communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutritional conditions to non-communicable diseases. This shift in population health towards more life years with chronic, non-communicable disease is likely to imply heavier health care costs and productivity losses.

The effects on children’s health are detailed separately and reveal a shift in the global burden of disease from children to younger adults.


Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director, Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL), E-mail: Tel: +32 2 234 3643 Mobile phone: +32 473 71 10 92

Diana G. Smith, Communications, Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL), Email: Mobile phone: +33 6 33 04 2943.

Notes for journalists

1. Global burden of disease study For more information contact Diana G. Smith, Email:

2. Western Europe category includes 17 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Central Europe includes 7 EU countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Eastern Europe includes 3 EU countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

3. Press release, Outdoor air pollution among top global health risks in 2010, 13 December 2012, Health Effects Institute,

4. Risk factors ranked by attributable burden of disease, Western Europe.

Source: 2010 Global Burden of Disease (Full article on 67 risk factors, page 2248).

Ranking of risk factors

1 Tobacco smoking, including second-hand smoke

2 High blood pressure

3 High body mass index (BMI)

4 Alcohol use

5 Physical inactivity and low physical activity

6 High fasting plasma glucose

7 Diet low in fruits

8 High total cholesterol

9 Diet low in nuts and seeds

10 Diet high in sodium

11 Ambient particulate matter pollution

12 Diet high in processed meat

13 Diet low in vegetables

14 Drug use

15 Diet low in seafood omega-3 fatty acids

Last updated on 10 January 2013

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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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