Commission strives to reduce the negative health effects of pollution

The Commission has unveiled its 2004-2010 action plan to reduce
illnesses linked to environmental pollution. European Greens have
come out angrily against it, saying the Commission has bowed to
pressure from industry.

Heightened concerns that illnesses such as cancer or asthma are
closely linked to pollution were the driving forces behind the
Commission’s new Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010.

For instance, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates
that, in large European cities, an annual 60,000 premature deaths
are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution (between six and
nine thousand for France alone according to the French Agency for
Environmental Health and Safety). And the “dramatic” increase in
asthma and allergies over the past 50 years are attributed by the
EEA to changes in environmental pollution. Still according to the
same source, a further 10 million people in Europe are exposed to
environmental noise levels that can result in hearing loss.

Published by the Commission on 9 June, the plan comprises 13
action points aimed at improving the coordination between the
health, environment, and research sectors. The actions are divided
into the three following areas:

  • Monitoring: Developing indicators to measure
    the link between environment and health and understand the routes
    pollutants take from their source to the human body. This would for
    example include ‘biomonitoring’ (taking regular samples of blood,
    urine or hair) to measure human exposure to environmental
    pollutants.
  • Research: Focusing research on four priority
    diseases (asthma/allergy, neuro developmental disorders, cancers
    and endocrine disrupting effects) to ‘fill the knowledge gap’
  • Communication: Developing citizen’s awareness
    to help them make informed health choices. Other actions include
    training to health professionals to make sure they are alert about
    environment and health interactions.

 

The Green Group in the European Parliament reacted
angrily to what it calls a "seriously flawed 'action plan' on
health and the environment" that leaves the lion's share to
research instead of legislative initiatives. Monica Frassoni,
Co-President of the Greens/EFA Group said "the Commission's only
approach to the protection of children against environmental
pollution is research, research, and more research. This 'action
plan' is, in fact, a 'plan of non-action' on the environment and
health that is in stark contrast to the Parliament's concrete
demands for preventive action." In an unusually clear-cut
statement, the Greens added "the Commission has proved to be too
scared to propose any effective measures to tackle environmental
factors that cause disease in children. So SCALE may as well stand
for 'we Stopped Caring About Legislating for the Environment'".

In an official statement, the European Chemical Council (
CEFIC) said the plan "can be a good basis" to
tackle environmentally-triggered childhood diseases, "provided it
is based on sound science and considers all environmental factors
that contribute to the onset of disease". Those, the organisation
said, include "physical, biological, chemical, life-style, and
socio-economic" factors. Speaking to EURACTIV, Caroline De Bie said
the draft put forward by the Commission in the consultative process
placed too much emphasis on the chemicals industry and too little
attention to other factors influencing environmentally-triggered
diseases. "We have witnessed a substantial improvement. The final
plan is much more balanced than the first draft," De Bie said.

A spokesperson for the oil companies' European
association for environment, health and safety in refining and
distribution (CONCAWE), told EURACTIV that "the interaction between
environment and health is far more complex than commonly
understood". He pointed that the scientific work needed to develop
reliable risk estimates was "a very time-consuming process," which
"can sometimes take as much as 15 years". He emphasised "the
importance that future initiatives are coordinated and aligned with
other Commission initiatives already underway, such as CAFE, REACH,
etc."

Speaking on request of anonymity, a Commission
official told EURACTIV that the stakeholder negotiations that led
to the final version of the plan had been "very difficult".
"Industry has been lobbying a lot," the official said, the problem
being to strike a balance between the request for swift legislative
action from the environmental groups and industry pressures to
delay further legal steps until more research is being made. While
admitting that "there is still a lot that we don't know", the
official pointed out that "there is still a lot that we can
do".

 

The Commission's Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010 is
part of the EU
Strategy for Environment and Health
known as the 'SCALE'
initiative (Science, Children, Awareness raising, Legal instruments
and Evaluation). Adopted in June 2003, SCALE is under the joint
responsibility of commissioners Wallström (Environment), Busquin
(Research) and Byrne (Health). The strategy attempts to reduce the
health effects of pollution and their related illnesses, with a
particular focus on children. 

The action plan is the Commission's contribution to the upcoming
WHO ministerial conference on environment and health. Taking place
in Budapest on 23-25 June, the conference will focus on children's
health.

 

  • The WHO fourth ministerial conference on environment and health
    will take place in Budapest on 23-25 June 2004
  • The Commission will produce a mid-term review of the action
    plan in 2007

 

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