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World Health Report: Car Exhaust Worsening Air Pollution In Europe

Second of two features on recent reports by the World Health Organization on major threats to public health. The second feature focuses on dangers from air pollution.

London, 29 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- European environmental, health and transport ministers are disturbed by evidence of a sharp rise of health problems caused by increasing air pollution from cars.

A three-day conference in London this month of 70 government ministers from many European countries was told that road traffic was the most rapidly growing source of pollution in Europe. The conference heard that car exhaust is causing a rise in respiratory conditions, heart disease, bronchitis and asthma.

The Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), was the biggest conference of its kind ever held in Europe. It discussed a range of problems endangering health, including water pollution, climate change and the re-emergence of diseases like cholera and typhoid.

A report by Jo Asvall, the WHO's regional director for Europe, said cars are the most rapidly growing source of pollution. She says new research reveals "startling and worrisome data on the effects of air pollution on health." The pollution problem is said to be particularly serious in East and Central Europe.

David Gee, who is attached to the EU-funded European Environment Agency, is particularly worried by the effect on children of air and other environmental pollution. He spoke recently with RFE/RL:

"We've known about lead and its ability to damage the IQ of children at quite low levels, from things like lead in petrol getting into the ordinary atmosphere, onto vegetation, onto soil and then into children. . . There is increasing evidence about quite low levels of contamination being part of a causal chain, in things like attention disorders and hyperactivity, and those sort of neurological symptoms which seem to be associated with low-level toxic pollution."

A new government-funded study says that vehicle-related pollution is killing more people than car accidents in three European countries studied -- Austria, France and Switzerland.

The study focused on exposure to fine particles -- matter that is smaller than 10 microns, and easily breathed into the lungs. One third of fine-particle pollution in the three countries was caused by road traffic. In cities, the percentage was up to 50 percent.

The three-country study found that long-term exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks causes an extra 21,000 premature deaths per year from respiratory conditions or heart disease. This was more than the total number of deaths annually from road traffic accidents (1031 in Austria, 8,300 in France and 616 in Switzerland).

The study found that each year air pollution from road traffic in the three countries causes 300,000 extra cases of bronchitis in children, plus 15,000 hospital admissions for heart disease. The study found that air pollution from road traffic causes the loss of 16 million work days annually in the three countries because people are forced to take days off or restrict their usual activities.

The total cost of the health impact on the three countries is put at 27,000 million Euros -- that is, 1.7 percent of the combined gross national product of France, Austria and Switzerland. The study, funded jointly by the French, Austrian and Swiss governments, was undertaken by three large project teams focusing, separately, on air pollution, epidemiology and economics.