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In April EFA participated at the 18th meeting of the WHO Task Force on Health Effects of Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, a sharing platform that advices the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP).

The meeting served to collect European health and environment authorities’ views on the progress in research on health impacts of particulate matter (PM) and ozone. One of the main focus of this annual gathering was to discuss available communication and public health messages for ambient air pollution at national and local level.

EFA was invited to bring the patient perspective in communicating with vulnerable groups affected by air pollution. Although all authorities agree that respiratory and allergic patients are among the most impacted by poor air quality, there are still obstacles to reach them, like an unclear communication system, a weak understanding linking pollutant sources other than traffic to the levels of air quality, and the effects that exposure to dirty air mean to patients and other vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Communicating with patients through transparency, accessible and adapted messages

In our presentation, EFA Communications Manager Isabel Proaño highlighted the main principles to communicate to patients: 1) to have a transparent system, where air quality evidence is divulgated respecting the right to be informed and that endorses accountability of the measures that need to be taken 2) to promote the accessibility of this information for vulnerable groups at all times, with specific services that enable patients to access information in a correct time-frame through their most preferred communication channels 3) to adapt the messages to vulnerable groups according to the gravity of the situation, giving behavior options so that patients can adapt their daily lives and engaging them to change. EFA presented best practices from their Irish, Polish, Dutch and British members to show how allergy, asthma and chronic obstructive disease patients are not only victims, but a factor for change to achieve higher standards of air pollution in Europe.

England and France presented on how and when their governments communicate about air pollution peaks, and what are the specific messages they spread to the population. Interestingly, the discussions highlighted the challenge local and national authorities’ face when communicating about air pollution effects on health: the risk of over communicating during pollution peaks can diminish the positive effects of informing the population about long-term effects of air pollution in our health. In this sense, the communication example on air quality in Canada was presented as a best example. The Government of Canada defined 10 years ago a more transparent communication system, with tailored messages for vulnerable groups and accessible through the weather information. The Canadian system also offers citizens the predictions for pollen concentrations.

Great interest about pollen monitoring

The fact that pollen concentrations are not seen as air pollution issued from human activities by the majority of European governments is hindering the amount of information allergy patients can get from pollen. However, countries with a hyper-developed farming system, especially when it is mono-culture like the olive tree in Spain, are witnessing an steep increase in allergy symptoms among the population. To address those cases, we encouraged the countries present to secure real-time pollen information, include it on air quality updates during the spring season and provide specific pollen-related advice for people with allergy during peaks. Our invitation was warmly welcomed by France and the representatives from Hungary, Montenegro and Ukraine confirmed their countries are communicating or planning to communicate about pollen concentrations.

Update on the ongoing revision of the European Union air policy

The European Commission representative updated on the revision of the EU Clean Air Package and ensured that the core of this legislation is to reduce damage to human health. However this objective will only be achieved with action on global warming and emissions at global level so the benefits on the new legislation will be reduced due to the still weak cooperation in this sense.

One of the novelties of the industrial emissions legislation is that it will to be aligned with EU climate change targets. The EU institutions have progressed on the discussion: pollution levels from medium scale industrial sites have been agreed at the Council of the European Union level and will be sent to the European Parliament for vote and the Nacional Emissions Ceiling legislation is currently being discussed at Parliament, who will come with a position in September (see EU Policy update section).

The European Union has measured the costs to implement air quality policies, around 2 billion Euro /year. However, the benefits will be much higher, especially taking into account health effects that will be able to save up to 40 billion euro / year.

New WHO Europe evidence on air pollution, communication and economics

Air pollution costs European economies US$ 1.6 trillion a year in diseases and deaths. According to a new WHO report called “Economic cost of the health impact of air pollution in Europe” the approximate 600,000 premature deaths and of the diseases caused by air pollution in the WHO European Region in 2010 is equivalent to one tenth of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire European Union in 2013.

The economic cost of deaths alone accounts for over US$ 1.4 trillion. Adding another 10% to this, as the cost of diseases from air pollution (like asthma and COPD), results in a total of almost US$ 1.6 trillion. In no less than 10 of the 53 countries of the Region, this cost is at or above 20% of national GDP. Over 90% of citizens in the Region are exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are above WHO’s air quality guidelines.

Given that many factors contribute to a rapid escalation of environmental situations affecting our health, the World Health Organisation representation for Europe has developed a guide called “Health and environment: communicating the risks” to assess the extent of possible effects on health and the environment and to manage information, evidence and communication on possible risks, while understanding and taking into consideration stakeholders’ opinions, interests and values.