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The Hidden Dangers: Exploring the Impact of Pollutants on Health

The effects of environmental pollutants and climate-related events on human health are significant and far-reaching. Pollutants such as air and noise pollution, as well as heavy metals like mercury, have been linked to various health issues including asthma, hearing loss, dehydration, and heart diseases. Climate-related events like heatwaves and floods pose a significant burden on vulnerable groups such as infants, the elderly, those in poor health, and communities living on floodplains.

Air pollution remains the most significant cause of environmental health hazards in Europe, affecting millions of people. The impact of air pollution is severe, causing lung and heart diseases, and even premature deaths. More than 90% of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful levels of fine particulate matter, which leads to over 200,000 premature deaths per year in Europe alone.

Noise pollution from highways, airports, and streets can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, sleep loss, and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Long-term exposure to environmental noise is estimated to cause 12,000 premature deaths and contribute to 48,000 new cases of ischemic heart disease per year in Europe.

The accumulation of pollutants in rivers and lakes that eventually find their way into our oceans can be detrimental to human health. Certain chemicals used in agriculture and industry can enter the food chain, eventually accumulating in our bodies. Biomonitoring research helps shed light on these chemicals and their effects on our health.

Climate change affects all Europeans, and its effects are far-reaching, causing heatwaves, elevated exposure to UV radiation, extreme weather events, prolonged and intensified pollen seasons, and the proliferation of infectious diseases and forest fires. Vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, and those with low income or in poor health are most affected. One in ten European schools and hospitals may also be at risk of flooding.

The health impacts of long-term exposure to chemicals remain unknown, as it is difficult to assess the risks that chemicals pose to human health due to the complex mixture of chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives through the environment, products, food, and drinking water. Human biomonitoring allows researchers to measure our exposure to chemicals and their metabolites, which are markers of subsequent health effects in body fluids or tissues. This information is then linked to other health data to better understand the links between chemicals and human health.

Environmental and occupational exposure to pollutants contributes significantly to the high burden of cancer in Europe. However, all environmental and occupational cancer risk factors are preventable. Air pollution is linked to around 1% of all cancer cases in Europe and causes around 2% of all cancer deaths. Radon exposure contributes significantly to the increase of cancer cases in Europe, with indoor radon exposure linked to up to 2% of all cancer cases and one in ten lung cancer cases. Forever chemicals such as lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, acrylamide, pesticides, Bisphenol A, and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) used in European workplaces and released into the environment are carcinogenic and contribute to cancer cases. All forms of asbestos are well-known carcinogens, and though the EU banned asbestos in 2005, it remains present in buildings and infrastructure, exposing workers involved in renovation and demolition work.

Reducing pollution not only protects vulnerable groups in the long term but also improves quality of life for all. The EU’s zero pollution action plan aims to achieve this by monitoring and assessing the available knowledge and trends in pollution and associated impacts on health. Detailed analysis of air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, chemical pollution, and soil pollution impacts on health is provided in sub-sections, with emerging issues highlighted in ‘Signals.’