EU study links health problems to air pollution

Long-term exposure to particulate matter PM2.5 can lead to the vascular disease atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) review released today (January 31 2013).

The review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution (REVIHAAP) also suggests a possible link with neurodevelopment, cognitive function and diabetes, and strengthens the causal link between PM2.5 and cardiovascular and respiratory deaths.

A WHO review commissioned by the EU  recommends European air pollution limits are tightened

A WHO review commissioned by the EU recommends European air pollution limits are tightened

The research was carried out on behalf of the European Commission as part of its review of EU air policy during the 2013 ‘Year of Air’ with the results presented to the Commission in Brussels.

According to WHO, more than 80% of Europeans are exposed to PM concentrations higher than those stipulated in the WHO 2005 Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs), which reduces the average life expectancy of EU citizens by 8.6 months.

As a result, the review recommends further tightening of EU limit values for PM2.5 in the ambient air quality directive under review this year, as the values are twice as high as those in WHO’s guidelines.

However, the WHO calls for a revision of its own AQGs for particulate matter by 2015, as recent studies have shown links between PM2.5 and mortality at concentrations below its 2005 guidelines (10 micrograms PM2.5 per cubic metre).

It also recommends a new AQG for nitrogen dioxide, as recent studies have associated short and long-term exposure to the pollutant with mortality, hospital admissions, and respiratory symptoms at concentrations at or below the current EU limit values (which are set at the same level as the AQGs).

Ozone

Evidence was found in the review which links long-term exposure to ozone to respiratory mortality and deaths among those with existing chronic respiratory health issues. Ozone exposure impacts on cognitive development and reproductive health, including pre-term birth, are also suggested in the review.

This adds to previous findings on short-term effects, which are the focus of current regulation. As a result, the WHO review recommends the development of AQGs for long-term average ozone concentrations.

EU commissioner for environment, Janez Potočnik, said: “EU air policy must be based on the latest science. That is why I asked WHO to undertake this research. The links it has found between air pollution and human health reinforce the case for an ambitious new policy: it will be a key input to the 2013 air quality policy review”.

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Only a few years ago, in the absence of clear evidence, air pollution standards and regulations were not sufficiently targeting human health. Years of WHO-coordinated research have provided the first quantitative estimates of the burden of disease from particulate matter and have now established links between air pollutants and health outcomes. We are confident that this new knowledge will ultimately lead to more stringent air pollution control policies to protect the health of European citizens.”

The REVIHAAP is a WHO-led project commissioned by the EU as part of its 2013 review of European air quality policy. The review aims to develop evidence-based responses to questions on general aspects of importance for air quality management, as well as specific topics of interest for individual air pollutants.

The review was conducted by a group of global academic experts under the guidance of a scientific advisory committee and presented in Brussels as part of the ‘Health Effects of Air Pollution: Briefing for Policy Makers’ workshop. A full technical report on REVIHAAP will be published in spring 2013.

Commissioner Potočnik has declared 2013 as the ‘Year of Air’ for the EU, during which a comprehensive review of all European air quality legislation is taking place and will report back in September 2013. (see airqualitynews.com story).