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.
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.”