Residents of Southeast European countries are more likely than those elsewhere in the continent to die of diseases related to the environment, shows a new study from the European Environment Agency (EEA).
In Bosnia & Herzegovina, as many as 27% of deaths are attributable to environment-related factors, and in Albania the situation is only slightly better with 23% of deaths connected to environment, the study, Healthy environment, healthy lives: how the environment influences health and well-being in Europe, shows.
This compares with 13% of deaths in the EU, or 630,000 deaths, that are attributable to environmental stressors, shows the study based on World Health Organization (WHO) data.
Another Southeast European country, Romania, has the highest share of environment-related deaths in the 27-member bloc, 19%. Indeed, with the exception of Greece, all the EU countries where preventable deaths attributable to the environment are higher than 15% of the total joined the bloc since 2004, the first wave of accession by post-socialist countries.
“There is a significant discrepancy between the east of Europe and the west of Europe,” says the report, which covers a total of 39 countries – the 33 EEA members plus six collaborating countries from the Western Balkans.
"These deaths could be prevented by eliminating environmental risks to health and reversing environmental degradation,” it adds.
By contrast, the lowest environmental contribution to mortality is in Sweden and Denmark among EU members at 10%, and it is even lower in Norway and Iceland, at just 9%.
The exceptions include East European nations Estonia and Slovenia, which have a relatively low environmental contribution to mortality.
“There are substantial health inequalities, both within and between European countries. Environmental inequalities contribute to driving health inequities in Europe,” says the report.
This is also reflected in the differences in life expectancy at birth, which range from 74.8 years in Bulgaria to 83.1 years in Italy. The report identifies three main groupings within the EU: the Baltic and East European member states with a relatively low life expectancy at birth, in contrast to the Mediterranean, West European and Nordic EU members.
‘While we see improvements in the environment in Europe and a clear focus in the Green Deal on a sustainable future, the report indicates that 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, EEA executive director, in a press release.
“Addressing these connections has to be part of an integrated approach towards a more inclusive and sustainable Europe,” he added.
Overall, 90% of deaths attributable to the environment in Europe are from non-communicable diseases, including cancers, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), mental, behavioural and neurological disorders, diabetes, kidney disease and asthma.
The report notes, however, that socio-economic status is linked to certain unhealthy behaviours, as lower socio-economic groups more likely to have poorer diets, be overweight, exercise less and smoke. “These behaviours have an impact on health and make people more sensitive to environmental risk factors,” comments the report.
Air pollution is Europe's top environmental threat to health, linked to more than 400,000 premature deaths every year in the EU.
Several earlier studies have already looked at deaths associated with air pollution in Southeast Europe, where coal is still an important part of the energy mix in many countries, and there are plans to build new coal power capacity.
They include a study led by UN Environment and published in 2019, which found air pollution is responsible for up to one in five premature deaths – or the deaths of almost 5,000 people – in 19 Western Balkan cities.
An earlier study by environmental NGO Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) found that ageing coal-fired power plants in Western Balkans are a major source of air pollution and associated health problems not only in the region but in several EU countries too.
Other important contributors to premature deaths and noise pollution, and the impacts of climate change, notably heatwaves, and exposure to dangerous chemicals.