Cutting air pollution and improving green spaces in cities would immediately improve the health of the poorest people in society, according to the European Environment Agency. Environmental factors inflict greater damage on the health of those in poverty, who already suffer a disproportionately greater burden of disease, than on the better-off.
“Strong action is needed to protect the most vulnerable in our society, as poverty often goes together with living in poor environmental conditions and poor health,” said Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the EEA.
Poor people are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution, which causes 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, and noise pollution, which contributes to 12,000 premature deaths a year and raises stress levels. They are also likely to have less access to green and “blue” spaces – such as riversides, lakes and coastal areas – which an increasing body of work shows are important for good physical and mental health.
The EEA found that countries with less social inequality and cleaner environments also showed improved health, with Norway and Iceland showing the lowest level – 9% – of deaths attributable to environmental factors, while in Albania the proportion was more than one in five, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina more than one in four.
Heatwaves, made more frequent by the climate crisis, are another environmental factor leading to deaths, but other emerging problems are also having an impact. Antibiotics found in sewage can spread antimicrobial resistance, as can the overuse of antibiotics in intensive farming, and infections from multi-drug-resistant bacteria cause 25,000 deaths in the EU each year.
The coronavirus crisis has underscored how people’s health is affected by their access to clean air and green spaces, with research suggesting possible links between air pollution and worse outcomes for those who catch the virus.
The toll on people’s health of poor environmental quality has often been ignored, even while governments have recognised the impact of related issues such as obesity, said Catherine Ganzleben, author of the EEA report published on Tuesday.
“We need to move away from the single-issue approach, and from the purely environmental perspective,” Ganzleben told the Guardian. “Much of the burden of disease falls on the most vulnerable, and we need to acknowledge and tackle that by looking at people’s overall wellbeing and the links between environment, health and wealth in an integrated fashion.”
Improving people’s health can also in turn have a beneficial impact on the environment, according to Ganzleben. Obesity is a leading cause of ill-health, and eating less meat and more fruit and vegetables can help people with weight loss. Such a change of diet would also improve the environment, as intensive agriculture for meat production gives rise to ammonia, which contributes to the particulate matter that is the most harmful form of air pollution, as well as producing large quantities of greenhouse gases that intensify the climate crisis.