Environmental pollutants have a large impact on children’s health in Europe, according to a new study published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (1).
Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental risk factors, such as air pollution, heavy metals, and secondhand smoke. In particular, the authors found that air pollution (particulate matter and ozone) and secondhand smoke produce the highest burden of disease in children (almost 70 per cent) in the European Union, and half of this accounts for the effects of particular matter (PM10) on infant mortality.
To come up with the numbers, the team of researchers from Spain, the UK, Norway, Lithuania, and France estimate the burden of childhood disease due to seven environmental exposures: air pollution — particulate matter less than PM10 (atmospheric particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter), PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter), and ozone — secondhand smoke, dampness, lead, and formaldehyde.
The number of years lost (DALYs)
Data for the study were obtained from the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease project, scientific literature, along with epidemiological risk estimates from several European databases. The researchers based their findings on disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), an indicator of disease burden defined as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability, or early death.
Based on the pollutants examined, the authors estimated that environmental risk factors reduce the number of DALYs in children by 2.6 per cent – equating to a total 211,000 years for those under 18 years old. The main contributors were is particulate matter (59 per cent or 125,000 DALYs), followed by secondhand smoke (20 per cent or 42,500 DALYs) and ozone (11 per cent or 24,000 DALYs).
According to the researchers, the actual disease burden could be higher. Their study only considered the effects of PM10 on infant mortality and asthma and the impact of PM2.5 on lower respiratory tract infections.
Out of the 28 member countries, 22 reported PM10 levels above the WHO recommendations by (annual average: below 20 g/m3 for PM10 and below 10 g/m3 for PM2.5) – with the exception of Luxembourg, Ireland, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and Denmark. Ozone levels of all countries were above those considered safe (100 g/m3 over eight hours).
However, even “safe” ozone levels can damage the lungs. Moreover, particulate matter is known to cause the greatest burden of disease and is associated with many respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological conditions, as well as higher infant mortality rates.
The EU needs more effective policies to reduce air pollution
As the authors write, “Quantifying the health impacts related to environmental hazards for children is essential to prioritize interventions to improve health in Europe.”
They suggest effective policies to reduce environmental pollutants are needed across the 28 countries in the EU. Adding that further research and risk management are necessary – and will help prioritize environmental health policies aimed at children in Europe.
At present, the EU lacks common databases to compile and harmonise exposure data for environmental risk factors, which would help implement EU-wide policies to reduce children’s exposure to environmental risk factors.
(1) Rojas-Rueda, D. et al. Environmental Burden of Childhood Disease in Europe. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2019). DOI: 10.3390/ijerph16061084