Targeted action is needed to better protect the poor, the elderly and children from environmental hazards like air and noise pollution and extreme temperatures, especially in Europe’s eastern and southern regions. This European Environment Agency (EEA) report warns that the health of Europe’s most vulnerable citizens remains disproportionately affected by these hazards, despite overall improvements in Europe’s environmental quality.
The EEA report ‘Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe’ draws attention to the close links between social and environmental problems across Europe. The distribution of these environmental threats and the impacts they have on human health closely mirror differences in income, unemployment and education levels across Europe.
While EU policy and legislation over past decades have led to significant improvements in living conditions, both economically and in terms of environmental quality, regional inequalities persist. The report stresses that better alignment of social and environment policies and improved local action are needed to successfully tackle environmental justice issues.
Air and noise pollution
Eastern European regions (including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) and regions in southern Europe (including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece), where incomes and education are lower and unemployment rates higher than European averages, were more exposed to air pollutants including particulate matter (PM) and ground level ozone (O3).
Wealthier regions, including large cities, tend to have on average higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mostly because of the high concentration of road traffic and economic activities. However, within these regions themselves, it is still the poorer communities that tend to be exposed to higher local levels of NO2.
Exposure to noise is much more localised than exposure to air pollution and ambient levels vary considerably across short distances. The analysis did find a tentative link between noise levels in cities and lower household incomes, suggesting that cities with poorer populations have higher noise levels.
Southern and south-eastern European regions are more affected by higher temperatures. Many regions in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain are also characterised by lower incomes and education, higher levels of unemployment and larger elderly populations. These socio-demographic factors can reduce individuals’ ability to respond to and avoid heat and thus result in negative health outcomes.
In parts of Europe a large number of people are unable to keep their homes adequately warm because of poor-quality housing and the price of energy. Illnesses and fatalities associated with exposure to low temperatures continue to occur as a result.