Environmental factors such as air pollution, climate-related factors, noise, chemicals, radiation and exposure to green spaces can have an adverse or a positive impact on human health and opinion polls show that Europeans are concerned about these issues. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one-quarter of the global non-communicable disease burden, and more than one-third of the burden among children, is due to modifiable environmental and life-style factors. Therefore there is huge potential for prevention to improve lifelong health, wellbeing, and life expectancy, and to tackle raising healthcare costs. In addition, there are worrying trends that reinforce the need for better prevention. Cancer rates are rising at around 1% per year, while fertility rates are declining in some countries. Allergies and asthma are also up around 5% per year. Numerous examples exist as regards the cost-effectiveness and health benefits of preventive policy actions: e.g., the introduction of unleaded gasoline, and subsequent decrease in blood lead levels, has a significant economic value, primarily in the form of avoided health care costs and wage losses due to lower intelligence and illness.
Research funded by the EU
A specific key action 'Environment and health' was first introduced under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). Over the period 1998-2002 with a budget of €160 million, this key action initiated more than 90 transnational research projects addressing targeted environmental and health issues.
Final results are available.
Following FP5, the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) saw an increase in annual funding for environment and health projects to around €50 million a year for the period 2002-06. The areas of research ranged from the contribution of environmental stressors to health end-points such as cancer or allergies/asthma, with funding of large networks of excellence, to the examination of the risks of waterborne stressors and nanoparticles. Numerous projects were also funded to improve the methods of integrated risk assessment, health impact assessment and in vitro testing of chemicals.
Final results are available.
Under the Seventh Framework programme (FP7 - 2007–13), the area of environment and health became more integrated into environmental research as one of the main sub-activities of the "Environment (including climate change)" theme within the Cooperation programme. Three priorities were addressed by the projects funded: 1. Health impacts of climate change; (ii) Health effects of environmental stressors other than climate change (e.g., chemicals, air pollution, electromagnetic fields); and (iii) Methods and decision-support tools for environmental health risk analysis and policy development. 150 projects have been funded with a total EU contribution of around €592 million (€85 million per annum). Details on these mostly ongoing projects are available (catalogue volume 1; volume 2 under preparation).
In preparation for the next framework programme, Horizon2020 – the EU Framework for Research and Innovation (2014-2020), it was recognised that there is a need to address research issues in a more cross-cutting and integrated way, integrating more innovation approaches into conventional research. This challenge-driven approach was to provide a bridge to Horizon 2020. In this context, the 'Environment and health' sub-activity changed to 'Protecting citizens from environmental hazards' challenge in the last calls for proposals. This new approach allowed the launch of the EU Exposome Initiative in 2012. This large-scale initiative, having a total budget of €38 million and an EU contribution of € 29 million until 2018, is the largest ever initiative in the environment and health research area in the EU. It now includes three projects: EXPOSOMICS (Enhanced exposure assessment and omic profiling for high priority environmental exposures in Europe), HELIX (The human early-life exposome – novel tools for integrating early-life environmental exposures and child health across Europe) and HEALS (Health and environment-wide associations based on large population surveys).
The environment and health research activities will be addressed mainly under the Societal Challenge 1 (Health, Demographic Change and Wellbeing). However, as environment and health research is very cross-cutting, relevant call topics will also be published under other challenges and actions such as 'Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials', 'Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies' (ICT and nanotechnologies) and 'Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bioeconomy'.
One of the main drivers for environment and health research since the end of FP5 has been the European Environment and Health Strategy and the associated Action Plan, adopted in 2004, the first phase of which finished at the end of 2010. The strategy and the plan aimed to improve our understanding of the links between environmental factors and health and were partially inspired by the need to link policy with research results. It resulted in the funding of numerous projects both in FP6 and FP7. The adoption of the European Strategy for Nanotechnology and the Nanotechnology Action Plan also served as important catalysts for mobilising research fund to investigate environmental and health risks of exposures to nanomaterials, especially in FP7.
The newly adopted Environment Action Programme for the EU entitled "Living well, within the limits of our planet" will guide environment policy up to 2020. The Priority objective 3 - To safeguard EU citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing – is likely to stimulate research at the EU level in the years to come.
A large majority of projects funded by the Framework Programmes have either responded directly to policy needs or provided scientific support for evolving Community policies such as the EU Directive on Ambient Air Quality and Cleaner Air for Europe ( 488 KB) or EU policies on chemicals (e.g., pesticides, chemical mixtures or endocrine disrupters).