The European approach to health and the environment

The link between health and the environment is reflected in the burden of current diseases linked to environmental factors. Indoor and outdoor air pollution is considered to be the most important factor impacting health, with 20 million Europeans suffering from respiratory problems every day.

The overall cost to society of asthma, an growing problem all over Europe, has been estimated at 3 billion euros per year. Many other health issues, such as cancer, the neurodevelopmental effects of exposure to heavy metals, exposure to electromagnetic fields or different types of chemicals, are concerns for Europeans, and children in particular. A 2004 study published in The Lancet estimates that 26.5 per cent of deaths in children under the age of five in Europe are due to environmental causes. There are pronounced differences between the regions of Europe, with a much higher burden in eastern European countries.

While the development of European environment legislation was given explicit legal basis in the Single European Act in 1987, the EU environmental agenda really developed in the 1990s, covering topics such as pollution control and waste management, as well as nature conservation and the use of environmental impact assessments. In 1997, a new article was introduced in the Treaty of Amsterdam that called for environmental protection requirements to be integrated into the definition and implementation of other policies. This new Article 6 links such integration to the promotion of sustainable development, therefore recognizing the relationship between environmental protection, economic development, and social cohesion. In 2003, the European Commission adopted an EU Strategy on Environment and Health, with the overall aim of reducing diseases caused by environmental factors in Europe. This was followed up by the European Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010, which proposes an integrated information system on environment and health as well as a coordinated approach to human biomonitoring between member states to render the assessment of the environmental impact on human health more efficient. The EU now has a considerable body of environmental legislation, expressed in a series of environmental action programmes, which are being brought together in an integrated Environmental Health Action Plan.


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