Climate action will reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, say experts

Protecting the climate and public health go hand in hand. The European Society of Cardiology has joined the call for climate action to help cut the risk of cardiovascular disease. EURACTIV France reports

At first glance, air pollution, sound pollution, climate change and cardiovascular diseases appear to be unrelated issues. But recent studies have revealed that the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is greatly increased by sound pollution, and that CVD accounts for 80% of all premature deaths due to air pollution.

To highlight the cause and effect relationship between air pollution and cardiovascular disease, the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) and the European Heart Network (EHN) launched a campaign on 29 August called “Environment and the Heart”. Through this campaign and petition, the two organisations hope to push law makers to create a healthy environment for Europe’s citizens, in order to limit CVD, including heart disease and strokes.

>>Read: Researchers link air pollution to heart diseases

Cardiovascular diseases are the primary cause of death in Europe, killing more than 10,000 people every day; more than all kinds of cancer combined.

Air pollution

According to the British Heart Foundation airborne particulate matter (PM) can increase the risk of CVD in three ways. Firstly, PM can stimulate receptors in the lungs that disrupt the nervous system and cause changes to heart rhythm. Secondly, inhaled particles can cause inflammation of the lungs and then damage the cardiovascular system as inflammatory chemicals pass into the blood. And finally, very small particles may pass into the blood and directly affect blood vessels.

>>Read: Air pollution costs France €100 billion per year

A study on ‘pollution peaks’ in Paris, published in the journal Plos One in July 2015, found that the risk of exposure to harmful pollution during a peak period was three times higher among the city’s most disadvantaged residents than among the population as a whole.

Lower socio-economic groups tend to accumulate risk factors, including unhealthy lifestyle factors like smoking, poor diet and higher risk jobs, which are exacerbated by exposure to higher levels of toxic gasses like nitrogen dioxide during pollution peaks.

Nitrogen dioxide is not itself a greenhouse gas, but it occurs usually as a by-product of combustion. Efforts to hold back climate change by cutting carbon emissions thus have the knock-on benefit of reducing emissions of nitrogen dioxide.

The EU’s poor performers

The European Air Quality Directive aims to limit the exposure of EU citizens to fine particle pollution, which is produced mainly by industrial processes, road vehicles and domestic heating.

Last June, the European Commission took Belgium and Bulgaria to the Court of Justice of the EU for failing to reduce their excessive PM levels.

The European executive has also begun taking legal action over the excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide in some member states. Since 2010, when the EU adopted legislation to limit emissions of nitrogen dioxide, 17 member states have declared excessive levels of the gas, and the Commission has opened infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

Taking action

High levels of particle pollution “pose a major risk to public health,” according to the Commission.

>>Read: Spectre of better regulation haunts air pollution bill

The result of the campaign and petition will be presented to the European Commissioners for Health, the Environment and Climate Change on World Heart Day, Tuesday 29 September.

This falls just two months ahead of the UN climate conference (COP 21) that will take place in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. In the European Union’s contribution to the conference, submitted under the Latvian presidency in March this year, the 28 country bloc committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. 

An estimated 90% of EU citizens are exposed to harmful atmospheric pollutants at levels judged dangerous by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10, and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.

The directive obliges member states to cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels. 

The European Commission estimates the total health costs linked to air pollution to be between €330 and €940 billion per year.

Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air. Part of the package is the Nation Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. It sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

In June 2015, EU environment ministers demanded flexibility in meeting the NEC directive's air quality targets, after dropping a cap on methane emissions from draft pollution rules. Governments were split on whether the proposed reduction goals for 2030 should be legally binding or non-binding.

Poland demanded the targets be pushed back to 2040, and Hungary said the bill should be scrapped, while others called for review clauses to be inserted in the legislation.

>>Read: Environment ministers want flexible air pollution targets

  • 29 September: World Heart Day
  • 30 November to 11 December: COP 21

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