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| A healthy environment

Vienna was the setting in June for the most important meeting on environment and health (E&H) in Europe since 2004. Organised by the World Health Organisation in Europe (WHO Europe), the event was a mid-term review of progress made on E&H issues, in preparation for the next meeting of European environment and health ministers in 2009. The focus was on children’s health, and how better to protect children from existing and emerging threats.

Ieva (age 13) from Lithuania shows her concern.


The Vienna meeting brought together around 300 people, including representatives from all 50 WHO Europe member states (including CIS countries), from the European Commission (officials from DG Research, the Joint Research Centre, DG Environment, and DG Health & Consumer Protection), and from industry and NGOs.

The goal of the meeting was to report back on developments in E&H issues related to children’s health. The WHO is closely involved in promoting E&H in Europe and follows the implementation of various national and transnational action plans. Under the spotlight was the Children’s E&H Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE), launched in Budapest in 2004, which focuses on accidents, the impact of chemicals, obesity and indoor air quality.

Initial reports are positive about the amount of work being undertaken, reflecting the importance given to E&H in national and regional policy agendas. The focus on children’s health is relevant, given this group’s particular vulnerability to E&H risks and the implicit focus on protecting Europe’s future population. Children are exposed to increasing amounts of electromagnetic radiation, new chemicals (like flame retardants) and indoor air pollution, that could increase their risk for certain diseases such as cancer or asthma.

The meeting was also an opportunity to look at emerging risks linked to nanomaterials and climate change. Nanosciences are developing strongly, and applications are expected to increase in number in the coming years. While the use of nanomaterials may provide many benefits, the risks are still not properly understood. Therefore, the Commission has proposed concrete steps towards the “safe, integrated, and responsible” development of nanotechnology. As for climate change, the health risk is currently small, but is likely to grow as the changing environment allows alien diseases to spread to new regions.


Working towards a healthier future environment.

The European Commission has been taking E&H very seriously. The Commission adopted the European Environment and Health Strategy in 2003 and the European Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010 a year later (for which a mid-term review has just been published). Four of the thirteen actions of the Action Plan are research-focused. E&H is part of the Sustainable Development Strategy, and it is recognised that an early response to E&H threats will lighten the burden on public health sectors. Reducing the incidence of asthma, for example, would affect the lives of 30 million people in Europe, and lower the annual healthcare cost of €17.7 billion.

One of the most basic goals is to achieve better integration between environment and health, and that means closer coordination between environmental policy and health policy alongside combined research efforts. Many E&H information systems have now been put in place, though continued efforts are needed to improve the integration and compatibility between the different systems and data. In any case, the experience of environment and health integration is a good example of inter-sectoral cooperation, responding to such EU initiatives as Health in all Policies.


EU research on E&H issues forms an integral part of the Action Plan. E&H research is being funded by a number of EC institutions, at the forefront of which is DG Research (RTD). Ninety projects were funded in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) which ran from 1998-2002, with a total EC contribution of €160 million and a particular focus on chemicals, air pollution and the health impact (a collection of these projects has just been published). In FP6, which finished last year but for which most projects are still ongoing, 56 projects were funded and the budget allocation rose to over €200 million.

New issues that have emerged in EU-funded projects are the impact of climate change on health and integrated environment and health assessments. In addition, some large networks are now being funded on asthma/allergy, environmental causes of cancer and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

The objective so far, in line with the Action Plan, has been to build up the knowledge base and understand the mechanisms and processes behind health disorders affected by the environment, particularly the long-term health effects of environmental stressors. The freshly launched FP7 (2007-2013) will continue this work. Given its multidisciplinary nature, E&H is being tackled by many different directorates, including information and communications technologies (ICT) and Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, and Biotechnology, but it is the Environment Directorate that is at the forefront.

Six topics within the Environment theme have been launched on E&H issues in the first call of the FP7 Cooperation work programme. These include calls to research air pollution, the health effects of drought and desertification, and a network of excellence in human bio-monitoring. Funds have also been committed for the creation of an E&H ERA-NET, an opportunity for national and regional agencies engaged in E&H research funding to increase their cooperation.

As more results come in, the next stage of the Action Plan will begin – previewing the results with a view to elaborating policy recommendations at the European level. The whole process should be finished by 2010, but a second phase is not excluded. And we and our children should be able to benefit from a healthier environment as a result of these concerted efforts.



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  • For further information, please contact:
    Tuomo Karjalainen
    Climate change and environmental risks Unit,
    tel. 0032-2-2964064 or 2958815