A report published this week by the European Environment Agency (EEA) claims that environmental factors contribute to one in eight deaths in Europe, and that these could be prevented by the provision of cleaner, quieter and greener living conditions.
Air and noise pollution, heatwaves and other impacts of climate change, and exposure to dangerous chemicals are involved in 13% of deaths, averaged across the continent, according to the EEA’s Healthy Environment, Healthy Lives assessment.
Noise pollution from road traffic, planes, industry and other sources induces stress, sleep disruptions and other effects that lead to disease risks such as high blood pressure and blood clotting.
The report says that noise contributes to 48,000 new cases of heart disease a year and 12,000 premature deaths.
There is a clear discrepancy between countries in the east and west of Europe. The highest fraction of deaths attributable to the environment is in Bosnia and Herzegovina (27%), and the lowest are in Iceland and Norway (9%).
Among EU countries, the highest environmental contribution to mortality is seen in Romania (19%), while the lowest is seen in Denmark and Sweden (10%).
Based on World Health Organisation data, the report also shows a link between poverty and people’s vulnerability to environmental health stressors, with the poorest being the hardest hit.
"There is a clear link between the state of the environment and the health of our population," said Virginijus Sinkevicius, European commissioner for the environment. "Everyone must understand that by taking care of our planet we are not only saving ecosystems, but also lives, especially the ones who are the most vulnerable."
He added that the EU was aiming to improve environmental conditions with initiatives such as its Biodiversity Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan.
The report says green spaces are associated with improved mental health and cognitive function, reduced cardiovascular morbidity, reduced prevalence of type 2 diabetes, better immune system responses, improved pregnancy outcomes and reduced all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality.
It adds: "The relationship between levels of green space in a local neighbourhood and people’s health and well-being is especially significant for low-income and deprived urban and suburban populations."
Stella Kyriakides, the commissioner for health and food safety, added that the coronavirus pandemic had been a "wake-up call" on the relationship between ecosystems and health.
"We need to face the facts – the way we live, consume and produce is detrimental to the climate and impacts negatively on our health," she said.
"From our ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ for sustainable and healthy food to Europe’s future Beating Cancer Plan, we have made a strong commitment to protect the health of our citizens and our planet."
Image: Morning rush hour in Bucharest. Romania has the highest percentage of environment-related deaths (Dreamstime)