European countries to agree new targets to fight environmental threats to health.
New WHO reports show progress in reducing environmental hazards to human health and growing inequalities in exposure
Representatives of 53 WHO Member States will gather in Parma, Italy, on 10-12 March 2010 to review the impact of national and cross-border environmental policies on the health status of the population of the WHO European Region: over 890 million people. The three-day Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health is the latest milestone in an intergovernmental process that started in 1989.
The event will bring together over 800 participants from countries across the European Region, including ministers of health and of the environment, representatives of the European Commission, intergovernmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, scientists and youth delegates.
Governments of countries in the European Union (EU) and other parts of the WHO European Region are expected to adopt a declaration reinforcing their commitment to reducing major environmental risk factors (including unsafe water and sanitation, contaminated air and dangerous chemicals) and emerging global threats (such as climate change). The declaration, to be signed on 12 March 2010, will commit governments to achieve clear goals in the next 10 years.
"Working together and across sectors on tackling environmental hazards has delivered tangible results on the wider European continent during the last twenty years," says Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, the new WHO Regional Director for Europe. "However, climate change, the global financial crisis and growing inequalities are putting a huge burden on national governments, making it more important than ever to agree a new way forward."
Two new WHO reports highlight progress and gaps in environmental health For the Conference, the WHO Regional Office for Europe has released two new studies: a comprehensive assessment of key trends in environment and health in the European Region over the past 20 years and a major review of inequalities in environmental risk. A fact sheet summarizes some of the results.
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.
Second, 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.
"Overall we note positive trends in health outcomes in Europe, as a result of a growing commitment to integrate health concerns in other sectors' decision-making. The creation of the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health at the first ministerial conference is a clear example of this," says Professor Ferruccio Fazio, Italian Minister of Health. "At the same time, evidence shows that, even within wealthier nations, we need to work more to achieve health for all."
Way forward: more powerful legislation needed "International efforts to eradicate poverty, improve health and safeguard natural resources and ecosystems will not succeed as long as they are tackled as isolated issues and outside the frame of socioeconomic policies. Joint efforts are needed to face our common challenges, such as the effects of climate change, which will exacerbate existing environmental vulnerabilities and put people more at risk, especially children," says Ms Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italian Minister for the Environment, Land and Sea. "This is why we need to take stock of what has been done and amplify our efforts to finish the business."
Across the European Region, many successful initiatives to reduce environmental risks were launched in the last decade. The EU has introduced new regulations on air quality and the safe use of chemicals (REACH - registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals), providing direction that is being followed by many other countries across the wider European Region. 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.
"We trust that Parma, with its high quality of life, large green areas and safe urban settings, will be the perfect advocate for healthy environments and a setting conducive to good will and commitment," concludes Mr Pietro Vignali, Mayor of Parma. "Towards this objective, we are also promoting a series of initiatives to make this the first ever zero-carbon-footprint ministerial conference on environment and health."
Notes to editors
The Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health: "Protecting children's health in a changing environment" is organized by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and hosted by Italy's Ministry of Health and Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea. The European Environment and Health Committee (EEHC) - which brings together national governments, the European Commission, and intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations - has been the steering committee.
The Conference will be a carbon-neutral event, using environmentally sound materials and products only. Participants will receive free tickets for electric public buses and access to bicycles, and organizers are supporting the local economy by buying locally sourced food. All Conference waste will be recycled and the Municipality of Parma will offset all other carbon costs.
The Conference is the fifth such event held in the WHO European Region as part of the European environmental and health process, which began over 20 years ago. The first four conferences were hosted by the governments of Germany (in 1989), Finland (in 1994), the United Kingdom (in 1999) and Hungary (2004).