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On the 1st of July, the European Parliament Interest Group on Allergy and Asthma met to discuss how air quality affects EU citizens’ health and how allergy and asthma – which are among the top chronic diseases in Europe – are influenced and exacerbated by poor air quality. The event was co-hosted by MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP, Finland) and MEP Nessa Childers (S&D, Ireland) and took place two weeks before the ENVI vote (European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) on the National Emission Ceilings Directive, a crucial piece of legislation regulating pollutant emissions. 

Think more health when defining environment and industrial legislations

Air pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and between €300 and €900 billion in health-related damages every year. Latest research has confirmed that living near polluted roads is responsible for 15-30% of all new asthma cases in children and COPD for people aged 65 or more and allergy is a major disease in Europe touching 30% of the population. According to Professor Jeroen Buters from the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) “in the nineties it was thought that the ceiling for allergy levels was reached, but recent numbers show there is no stopping. It is pollution and lifestyle that are making us allergic. The EU should monitor the smaller particles in the air, especially Particulate Matter (PM 2.5), and Nitric Oxide, which are the most dangerous for humans’ health”. EAACI Professor Buters presentations is here.

“It is not a secret that there are serious air quality problems in Europe with serious health consequences”, recognised Thomas Verheye from the European Commission Directorate-General for Environment. But even if European air quality standards are obsolete, “it is not a good idea to bring very strict new legislation on the table, when 17 Member States are facing problems in Courts because of air pollution”, said Mr Verheye. The latest Council discussion on the National Emissions Ceiling directive has suggested a revision of the pollutant levels to 2030 that would be less ambitious that the text proposed by the Commission. However, “a strong voice from the health community can help overcome resistance to taking further cost-effective action”, concluded Mr Verheye, with the objective of reaching air pollution levels in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines by 2030. European Commission Thomas Verheye presentation is here.

Climate change is a medical emergency

Health effects provoked by climate change are already felt today in Europe. According to Anne Stauffer from Health and Environment (HEAL), “climate change and air pollution is a dangerous mix for our health: there are increasing patterns of the allergy season and air pollution can modify the allergic potential of plants”. In the views of the civil society, greater ambition is possible. “2025 reductions should be binding for all pollutants while ammonia, methane and mercury should also be addressed. 2030 is a long timeframe and we want a clear commitment to tackle air pollution.” HEAL Anne Stauffer presentation is here

Part of the European Parliament is not satisfied with the Council 2030 proposal and “if we do not link health costs and air quality and communicate this to the politicians, we are going to lose the debate”, said Sirpa Pietikainen, Chair of the European Parliament Interest Group on Allergy and Asthma. Although some political parties are not in favour of regulating ammonia and methane, other mechanisms, like non-road mobile machinery, could be activated to reduce pollution, suggested Ms Pietikainen.

The reality is that inaction today will cost the population more in the future. The severity of the clinical manifestations of allergy in young children is increasing and according to Professor Antonella Muraro from EAACI “air pollutants can influence these clinical manifestations: breathing dirty air at schools can provoke severe allergic manifestation in children and the next generation. With Europe at the forefront of the healthy living concept, we have an ethical responsibility to move forward”.

Less pollution and more research to cure allergy and asthma

With an estimation that by 2025 more than 50% of Europeans will suffer from at least one type of allergy, “the EU should prevent asthma and allergy trends and symptoms getting worse through responsible actions to tackle health determinants such as reducing indoor and outdoor pollution, ensuring real-time pollen monitoring and information in Europe, limiting chemicals exposure and tobacco use and exposure”, said Christine Rolland from the European Federation of Allergies and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations (EFA). EFA Christine Rolland presentation is here.

Air pollution is one major factor that triggers asthma attacks and “we could be part of a generation that could cure people with asthma”, said Dan Murphy from Asthma UK. Although 10% of Europeans have asthma, only 0.5% of the EU research budget goes to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “There is a need for greater research and we need more money invested into the impact of pollution levels, which will affect future generations”, Mr Murphy added.

Ms Renata Gili from the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the European Union read a statement prepared by her colleagues from the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, underlining that 90% of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. Air pollution is the leading cause of death from environmental related matters worldwide and represents a serious economic burden for Europe. Something more has to be done to tackle outdoor, as well as indoor, air pollution and WHO is also working on the review of their air quality guidelines to ensure the protection of people’s health.

All panellists underlined the necessity to improve air quality in Europe for the health benefit of all its citizens. The European Parliament ENVI committee has the opportunity to propose the emission levels identified by the WHO and, as Ingrid Kössler from the European Economic Social Committee (EESC) put it, “if investment in air quality would be a business proposal nobody would hesitate investing on clean air”.

Please find here the final event report and pictures of the event.

The EP Interest Group on Allergy and Asthma is an informal group of Members of the European Parliament committed to policy actions to address unmet needs of allergy and asthma at EU level. It serves as a forum to share expertise and align interests engaging with relevant EU policy-makers and stakeholders on allergy and asthma health. The group is chaired by MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and the Secretariat of the group is jointly coordinated by us and the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI). More and regular information on the Interest Group is available in a dedicated section in our website