European countries adopt plan to fight environmental threats to health

1 April 2010

A plan to reduce environmental threats to health in the next decade has been endorsed by 53 European countries attending the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health last month.

Through the Declaration and Commitment to Act, participating governments agreed to implement national programmes to provide equal opportunities to each child by 2020 by ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, opportunities for physical activity and a healthy diet, improved air quality and an environment free of toxic chemicals.

The Ministerial Conference was organized by the WHO Regional Office for Europe (Copenhagen, Denmark) and hosted by Italy's Ministry of Health and Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea.

Governments vowed to tackle the adverse health impact of climate change and to reduce social and gender inequalities in exposure to risk. They also pledged to place health at the centre of socioeconomic development through increased investment in new technologies and green jobs.

Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said, "We need a radically new vision for European health policy to address the biggest health challenges of our Region. This Conference has opened an exciting new chapter in the way European governments work on environment and health — helping to push these closely inter-related issues higher up the political agenda."

Priority for action

In this first major gathering of health and environment ministers since the Copenhagen conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last December, European governments pledged to integrate health issues into climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, policies and strategies in all sectors.

Evidence is growing that climate change is contributing to an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, such as heat-waves, floods and droughts. Since 1990, the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) has recorded more than 1200 natural events in the WHO European Region, affecting over 48 million people and causing more than 112 000 deaths, at an estimated loss of more than US$241 billion.

Future work will be based on a new European regional framework for action, entitled "Protecting health in an environment challenged by climate change". The document provides a comprehensive roadmap laying out steps and priorities for coordinated international and national action.

Delegates also underlined that the health sector, one of the most energy-intensive sectors in all countries, should lead moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the public sector by rationalizing energy use. They also agreed to strengthen early-warning surveillance and preparedness systems for extreme weather events and disease outbreaks.

The way forward

"A significant proportion of Europeans suffers from health problems linked to environmental conditions. Vulnerable groups, such as children, pregnant women and socially disadvantaged people are particularly affected. Policy-makers have the responsibility to address this problem. The European Commission will play its part by continuing to focus attention across European Union policies on environmental impacts on health," said John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy.

Ms Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian Minister for the Environment, Land and Sea, said, "Integration of environment and health issues into the policies of other sectors, like transport, energy, industry or agriculture, and related investments would in turn reduce impacts and save the costs of inaction. Environment and health objectives can also serve as an engine to boost innovation and competitiveness: the main challenge now is to address environment and health concerns through socioeconomic policies. The Parma Declaration is an important step to join efforts at local, national and international level in this direction."

"The Conference outcomes entrust the health sector with a stronger responsibility. Not only can many of the environmental effects be controlled through well-known health-system interventions, such as primary prevention or health care; but the health sector can take a leading role with other sectors in advocating for a reduction in risk exposure," noted Professor Ferruccio Fazio, Italian Minister of Health.
The future of the European environment and health process

In September 2010, Member States will gather in Moscow for the sixtieth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, WHO's highest decision-making body at the regional level, to endorse the outcomes of this Conference through a resolution.

During 2010 and beyond, the European environment and health process will be revitalized through a series of new arrangements.

The governments gathered in Parma agreed to strengthen political co-ordination between regular ministerial conferences, and will now involve ministers directly in steering the Process — to ensure that cross-sectoral issues are given the highest possible political profile.

The Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health will be held in 2016.

New reports

Two new reports that highlight progress and gaps in environmental health were released by the WHO Regional Office for Europe for the conference.

The first, Health and environment in Europe: progress assessment, reveals that mortality rates from diarrhoeal diseases among young children have been cut to 20% of previous levels in recent years, largely through improved access to clean water and sanitation, and that traffic-related deaths have fallen by 40% since the early 1990s. After a switch to unleaded petrol across most of the Region, and a subsequent 90% cut in lead emissions, lead levels in children's blood also dropped.

The second report, WHO's largest compilation of evidence on inequalities in environmental risk across Europe, published in the European Journal of Public Health, points to significant variations within countries, and even cities, in the social distribution of environmental exposure and related deaths and disease. Vulnerable segments of society can be significantly more exposed to avoidable environmental hazards, in some cases over twice as much as their wealthier peers, in all countries in the European Region.

Way forward: more powerful legislation needed

Across the European Region, many successful initiatives have been launched in the last decade to reduce environmental risks. The EU has introduced new regulations on air quality and the safe use of chemicals (REACH), providing direction that is being followed by many other countries across the wider European continent. In countries outside the EU, governments have created or updated more than 50% of their legislation on environment and health during the last five years.

Nevertheless, government policies on different environmental issues and health considerations vary significantly in scope and ambition. While governments have designed a broad range of intersectoral actions to tackle so-called traditional hazards - such as those related to drinking- and bathing water, outdoor air and food safety - public policies on indoor air quality, injuries and physical activity have not been sufficiently developed.

Further information

1. The conference website:

2. The Parma Declaration on Environment and Health [pdf, 82KB]  
Also available in: francais[pdf, 67KB], deutsch[pdf, 96KB], rrussian[pdf, 243KB]

3. The solid facts on climate change and health [pdf, 35KB]Fact sheet, 12 March 2010
Also available in: fr[pdf, 93KB], de[pdf, 108KB], ru[pdf, 154KB]

4. EM-DAT. The International Disaster Database
Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters


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