Cutting air pollution in Europe’s cities would improve health of poor, says watchdog | Environment

Cutting air pollution and improving green spaces in cities would immediately improve the health of the poorest people in society, a report from Europe’s environmental watchdog has found. Environmental factors inflict greater damage on the health of those in poverty, who already suffer a disproportionately greater burden of disease, than […]

Cutting air pollution and improving green spaces in cities would immediately improve the health of the poorest people in society, a report from Europe’s environmental watchdog has found.

Environmental factors inflict greater damage on the health of those in poverty, who already suffer a disproportionately greater burden of disease, than on the better-off, according to the European Environment Agency. Measures that reduce air pollution and give people greater access to parks and similar amenities are well within the reach of governments.

“Strong action is needed to protect the most vulnerable in our society, as poverty often goes together with living in poor environmental conditions and poor health,” said Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the EEA. “Addressing these connections has to be part of an integrated approach towards a more sustainable and inclusive Europe.”

Poor people are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution, which causes 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, and noise pollution, which contributes to 12,000 premature deaths a year and raises stress levels. They are also likely to have less access to green and “blue” spaces – such as riversides, lakes and coastal areas – which an increasing body of work shows are important for good physical and mental health.

The EEA found that countries with less social inequality and cleaner environments also showed improved health, with Norway and Iceland showing the lowest level – 9% – of deaths attributable to environmental factors, while in Albania the proportion was more than one in five, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina more than one in four.

Heatwaves, made more frequent by the climate crisis, are another environmental factor leading to deaths, but other emerging problems are also having an impact. Antibiotics found in sewage can spread antimicrobial resistance, as can the overuse of antibiotics in intensive farming, and infections from multi-drug-resistant bacteria cause 25,000 deaths in the EU each year.

The coronavirus crisis has underscored how people’s health is affected by their access to clean air and green spaces, with research suggesting possible links between air pollution and worse outcomes for those who catch the virus. The EEA said it was examining the potential links.

What are the best policies to reduce air pollution?

Most air pollution is produced by the burning of fossil fuels and waste, and this is the focus of the World Health Organization’s global recommendations:

  • Moving from coal and gas power stations and diesel generators to solar, wind and hydropower
  • Prioritise walking, cycling and public transport over cars in urban areas and shift to electric cars
  • Improve the energy efficiency of homes to reduce heating needs and avoid coal and wood burning inside
  • Promote waste reduction and use incineration only when unavoidable and when emissions controls are in place
  • Reduce the burning of stubble in fields upwind of cities
  • Create green spaces in cities to help remove some pollutants

In the UK, the government’s extensive research shows deterring polluting vehicles from city and town centres is by far the quickest, most cost-effective way to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which are at illegal levels in most urban areas.

Other policies include:

  • Retrofitting of buses, heavy goods vehicles and taxis, which is the next most effective option
  • Scrappage schemes for older, polluting vehicles and subsidies for electric vehicles can also help

What are the best ways to avoid air pollution?

The solution to air pollution is stopping it at source but until that happens, experts including the British Lung Foundation (BLF) suggest the following:

  • Avoid spending long periods of time in places where pollution builds up, such as busy roads
  • If you travel on foot or a bike, using backstreet routes away from congested roads can cut exposure by half. Even on busy streets, cyclists experience less pollution than drivers
  • Some scientists recommend parents use covers on their buggies to protect infants
  • Go to work earlier, before the rush hour has begun and levels of pollution have built up
  • When air pollution is high and if you have lung condition such as asthma, reduce or avoid strenuous outdoor exercise, or do your exercise inside
  • There is very little evidence to recommend the use of face masks, according to the BLF

Stella Kyriakides, the EU commissioner for health and food safety, said: “Covid-19 has been yet another wake-up call, making us acutely aware of the relationship between our ecosystems and our health, and the need to face the facts – the way we live, consume and produce is detrimental to the climate and impacts negatively on our health.”

The toll on people’s health of poor environmental quality has often been ignored, even while governments have recognised the impact of related issues such as obesity, said Catherine Ganzleben, author of the EEA report published on Tuesday. Air pollution leads to the premature death of 400,000 people a year in Europe, but governments have failed to take the measures needed – from regulations on vehicle emissions to better public transport, cycle lanes and pedestrian planning – to improve it.

“We need to move away from the single-issue approach, and from the purely environmental perspective,” Ganzleben told the Guardian. “Much of the burden of disease falls on the most vulnerable, and we need to acknowledge and tackle that by looking at people’s overall wellbeing and the links between environment, health and wealth in an integrated fashion.”

Improving people’s health can also in turn have a beneficial impact on the environment, according to Ganzleben. Obesity is a leading cause of ill-health, and eating less meat and more fruit and vegetables can help people with weight loss. Such a change of diet would also improve the environment, as intensive agriculture for meat production gives rise to ammonia, which contributes to the particulate matter that is the most harmful form of air pollution, as well as producing large quantities of greenhouse gases that intensify the climate crisis.

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