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World Health Assembly tackles air pollution for better health

HEAL welcomes the first-ever WHO resolution on the health impacts of air pollution, adopted this week at the World Health Assembly.

A landmark resolution entitled “Health and the environment: addressing the health impact of air pollution” was adopted on the last day of the 68th World Health Assembly (WHA). It constitutes a major milestone for improving the health of people suffering from diseases related to poor air quality, including respiratory problems, heart attacks, strokes and cancer. It paves the way for WHO to significantly strengthen its capacity, and for health ministries to redouble their efforts to reduce the health impacts of air pollution. With this clear mandate, WHO will develop a Roadmap to present to the next WHA.

BREATHE cleaner air

HEAL’s Executive Director Génon K. Jensen attended the WHA and the High Level Assembly of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which took place in parallel, to highlight the evidence and overwhelming support from the health community, including doctors, nurses and patients, for an ambitious resolution. “Health delegates at the WHA underline the seriousness of what many call ‘the invisible killer’, which takes its toll not only in the emerging economies of China and India, but also in the European region. A recent assessment from WHO estimated that air pollution costs up to 1.6 trillion US-$ in the 53 European region countries each year. But more importantly, air pollution also costs lives. For example, the smallest particles, PM2.5, shorten Europeans’ life expectancy by eight months. Combined with ozone, these pollutants are responsible for 430,000 early deaths,” Ms Jensen said.

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HEAL Director Génon K. Jensen meets with Michael Holland, report economist of HEAL’s “The Unpaid Health Bill” report, to present the findings on Turkey and try out the BREATHE 3D poster.

The CCAC High Level Assembly brought together health and environment ministers from member states as well as businesses, research institutions and civil society, underlining the strong links between air pollution, human health and climate change. It was accompanied by an exhibition called BREATHE, which featured a unique 3D painting that contrasts polluted and non-polluted urban air.

Ms Jensen also spoke during a technical briefing on climate change and health on 20 May to share with over 300 delegates the results of a new HEAL report on Turkey’s health costs due to air pollution from coal fired powered generation. The report establishes these costs at up to EUR3.6 billion per year in Turkey, and calls on the Turkish government to abandon plans to more than quadruple the number of coal power plants over the next years. The report continues the work on air quality and health HEAL and its members, European Respiratory Society, European Lung Foundation and the European Federation of Allergy and Asthma, have been doing over the last ten years.

NGOs call for a strong resolution

These figures heighten the importance of the new resolution even more, the HEAL director emphasised: “While HEAL regrets that health ministers did not call for binding measures to tackle air pollution, today’s resolution nevertheless is the kick-off for greater engagement and resources for health ministers and health authorities to tackle air pollution, for example by clearly including cleaner air strategies in national disease prevention programmes, and addressing the two largest culprits of air pollution – coal-fired power stations and diesel from transport.

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IFMSA delegates at the BREATHE event.

The resolution was also welcomed by several non-governmental organisations. The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) called for a stronger engagement on climate change during an intervention: “As the doctors of tomorrow, we are deeply concerned about the unhealthy environments in which our future patients are most likely to live in, if no ambitious actions are taken today. […] Health co-benefits of climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, including those with considerations for air quality, can positively tackle the risk factors of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] and promote active lifestyles.

The World Health Professions Alliance, a collective representing more than 26 million health professionals globally, emphasised the need for follow-up and highlighted the need for health sector engagement on climate change: “Given both the direct health effects of air pollution and the contribution of pollutants to climate change which have profound health implications, the WHPA would like to highlight the urgent and continued need for unprecedented commitments from member states to ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets and active health sector engagement in international climate change negotiations on the road to COP21 in Paris.

Finally, the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) asked for an update to the WHO Air Quality Guidelines: “We expect that the WHO support to Member States will include new updates of its Air Quality Guidelines and their promotion. Improved monitoring of population exposure to air pollutants in the Member States will increase their ability to plan and evaluate their own actions to reduce pollution.

The NGO statements during the WHA debate on the resolution are available here.
More information on air quality and health is available on the Know your air for health website, a joint project by HEAL and the EFA: http://knowyourairforhealth.eu/

Last updated on 11 June 2015

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The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). We demonstrate how policy changes can help protect health and enhance people’s quality of life. Read more »

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