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EU Health commissioner urged to bring "environment" to UN chronic disease summit


Note: On Thursday, 15 September 2011, the European Parliament will vote on a Resolution on the EU position and commitment in advance to the UN high-level meeting on the prevention and control of non-communicable disease New York, USA, 19-20 September 2011.

EU Health commissioner urged to bring "environment" to UN chronic disease summit

Brussels, 14 September 2011 - European health experts are astounded that prevention through environmental policy may hardly be mentioned at the United Nations Summit on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) later this month. (1)

In an Open Letter to the European Commission, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is urging health commissioner John Dalli to bring environmental factors to the agenda along with the four so-called "lifestyle" factors: tobacco, poor diets, alcohol and lack of physical activity. (2)

"Reducing exposure is a key tool for preventing cancer and other chronic, non-communicable disease," says Genon Jensen. "The European Union is an international leader on clean air and chemical safety legislation so Commissioner Dalli is well-placed to bring environmental prevention of chronic disease to the top of the agenda."

Chronic, non-communicable diseases are a major challenge for the European Union, making up 77% of the total burden of disease in the World Health Organization European region. (2) The good news is that addressing environmental exposures can improve health, and reduce associated health care costs.

"A strong commitment to environmental prevention through policy change at UN level will pay off for EU member states in terms of better health and lower health care budgets," Ms Jensen adds.

Many examples of effective policy change to improve health exist. The EU’s strong backing for smoke-free public places is already saving lives and improving health in Europe. According to the World Health Organization, studies from countries that enforce bans on smoking in public places are finding reductions in heart attacks. The scientific literature indicates that hospitalisation rates for myocardial infarctions are decreasing by 20–40%. (3)

Another example of cost-effective legislation is the EU’s pioneering chemical policy. Although it is too early to assess the impact of this legislation, a European Commission assessment of REACH prior to its introduction stated that if this legislation succeeds in reducing chemical-related diseases by only 10%, the health benefits are estimated at 50 billion Euros over 30 years. This corresponds with 2,200 to 4,300 fewer cancer cases in the workplace annually. (4)

Improvements in outdoor air quality in Europe over the past few decades have produced important gains in respiratory and heart health in Europe. Further outdoor air quality legislation, and air quality improvements resulting from stronger climate mitigation policy, could achieve more. Exposure to outdoor polluted air is currently responsible for an estimated 455,000 premature deaths each year in Europe. (2)

Awareness of the extent to which policy initiatives can help reduce cancer is growing rapidly. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine, March 2011, wrote: "The most valuable approaches to reducing cancer morbidity and mortality lie in avoiding the introduction of carcinogenic agents into the environment and eliminating exposure to carcinogenic agents that are already there."

In 2010, a European Parliament Resolution called for the EU Partnership action against cancer to "include a component on environmental factors, these being defined as not only environmental tobacco smoke, radiation, and excessive UV exposure, but also hazardous chemicals in the indoor and outdoor environment to which people are exposed, including endocrine disruptors". (5)

At a WHO meeting in Asturias, Spain earlier this year in preparation for the UN summit, experts unanimously called for "prevention of the environmental and occupational exposures that cause cancer" to become "an integral component of cancer control worldwide." (6) HEAL is one of the signatories to an open letter to the UN and WHO calling for this recommendation to be included in the text of the UN resolution in New York.

"Given the body of scientific evidence linking air pollution, hazardous chemicals, and radiation to chronic disease, how can policy measures to tackle these threats be left off any important health agenda in the 21st century?" the letter asks. (2)

Notes for journalists:

1. United Nations high-level meeting on noncommunicable disease prevention and control, 19-20 September, 2011, New York, USA

In the World Health Organization European region, 77% of the total disease burden is associated with chronic, noncommunicable disease, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

2. HEAL letter and Fact sheet

3. Tobacco-control legislation: already saving lives, Copenhagen, 31 May 2011,

4. REACH, Economic facts and figures, 2006, EEB, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), and WECF.

5. Report on the Commission Communication on Action against Cancer: European Partnership

6. Asturias Declaration,


Genon Jenson, Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance, Tel: +32 2 234 3642, Email:,

Diana Smith, Communications, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Tel: +33 6 33 04 2943, email:

Last updated on 19 October 2011

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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