The European Heart Journal has published a study modeling the effect of air pollution in Europe on cardiovascular health. It finds that air pollution may have a greater effect on mortality from cardiovascular illness than previously believed, but notes that the hazard ratio used allows for a “high degree of uncertainty.”
Non-Communicable Diseases the Leading Cause of Mortality
World Health Organization figures show that non-communicable diseases account for 71 percent of the world’s deaths. Of these, 31 percent of deaths were the result of cardiovascular disease while the rest can be attributed to cancer, diabetes and lung disease.
In Europe, 45 percent of deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease. We know that there are many risk factors involved, but the authors of the new study believe that environmental factors that contribute to heart disease, including air pollution, are being underestimated in current Global Burden of Disease (GED) estimates.
Medical Experts Warn of Particulate Pollution Hazard
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health estimates that nine million unnecessary deaths are caused by unhealthy environmental conditions and attributes half of the problem to air pollution.
Very fine particulate pollutants smaller than 2.5 µm in diameter are the primary concern as a mounting body of evidence points towards these pollutants as contributors to heart disease and death.
The study estimates that of these, mortality will be as a result of:
- Lung cancer: 7 percent
- COPD: 6 percent
- Pneumonia: 7 percent
- Stroke: 8 percent
- Ischemic heart disease: 40 percent
- Other non-communicable diseases: 37 percent
Air Quality Standards Inadequate
The study’s authors note that EU air quality standards call for an average air quality limit of 25 µg/m3 – more than double the 10 µg/m3 level suggested by the World Health Organization – and even this figure will not reduce the hazard ratio below 1.
In fact, the EU air quality standard promulgated in 2015 is far laxer than that of the US, where the annual average limit is 12 µg/m3 and Australia and Canada, which both have standards in line with, or more stringent than, the 10 µg/m3 WHO recommendation. Both countries also have concrete plans to improve air quality still further.
In addition, there are areas in Europe where pollution levels exceed the already-lax air quality standard significantly. Europe, says the report, must urgently prioritize clean air for the sake of human health.
Cleaner Air in the EU is Achievable
The goal of cleaner air will not be impossible to reach. Europe is already moving away from fossil fuels, and although it’s no panacea, cutting out their use would increase average life expectancy by 1 to 1.4 years.
Thus, moving to renewable energy will have immense health benefits and may even have a greater impact on reduced mortality than the reduction in cigarettes smoking achieved in recent decades.