Press Release WHO/57
31 July 1998
AVERTING THE THREE OUTRIDERS OF THE TRANSPORT APOCALYPSE: ROAD ACCIDENTS, AIR AND NOISE POLLUTION
Scientists attending the European Forum on Transport, Environment and Health jointly organized by the European Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Austrian Ministry for the Environment agreed that diesel exhaust contains a number of potential and proved carcinogens and contributes to the human lung cancer burden. A recently highlighted new class of potent mutagenic compounds found in diesel exhaust and airborne particles (nitrobenzanthrones) is likely to be among key factors. Evidence is also increasing for a link between childhood cancer and motor vehicle exhaust, possibly due to benzene exposure.
The meeting is paving the way for next year's ministerial conference on Environment and Health to be held in London in June 1999, where European Ministers of Environment and Health will be discussing and adopting the European Charter on Transport, Environment and Health.
In the meantime, at the Vienna meeting, a representative of the European Union described the impact of transport on the environment and human health "as a major political concern throughout Europe". "In the European Union", said Dr Robert Coleman, Director-General of the Transport Division of the European Commission "as regards fatalities only, we still accept about 123 a day, just under 45,000 a year". In the European Union, the total cost of the adverse environmental and health effects of transport, including congestion, is estimated as up to 260 billion ECU.
In 1995, according to the WHO statistics, there were two million traffic accidents resulting in 120,000 deaths and 2.5 million injured people in the whole European region. One in every three road traffic deaths involves people younger than 25 years of age. Pedestrians and cyclists stand out as a particularly vulnerable group. In the United Kingdom, they make up 45% of all road deaths. In Hungary, the proportion is even higher, being over 50%, though it is substantially lower in most Western European countries (17% in France, 20% in Germany and around 30% in Denmark and the Netherlands). In motorized traffic the highest risk group is motorcyclists. Their death rate is ten times higher than for car occupants, the injury rate is six times higher than that of car occupants.
"The reduction of air pollution, is a key area of action in Austria and in the European Union as a whole", said Dr Martin Bartenstein, Minister for the Eanvironment of Austria. "Some of the highlights of the current European Commission Auto-Oil-Programme include the reduction of the benzene content in petrol to a maximum of 1% by 2000 and of the sulphur content down to 50 ppm (parts per million) by 2005". In his speech Dr Bartenstein also addressed the special needs of the most vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and the handicapped as well as the need to protect sensitive environmental areas. During Austria's EU Presidency, "we are aiming to conclude negotiations leading to substantial reductions of heavy duty vehicles emissions and CO2 emissions of passenger cars".
Lower speed limits, the presence of traffic police on the road, the use of safety belts and helmets are simple and effective safety measures but further reductions in accident levels will require additional measures such as increasing the share of public transport and creating pedestrian areas.
Describing the current atmospheric pollution, Dr Gerd Oberfeld of the Austrian Medical Association, pointed out that "daily, the health of millions of children and adults in Europe is being compromised due to combustion engines. People are suffering from increased coughs, asthma attacks, from acute and chronic bronchitis as well as from heart and circulatory problems. The exhaust from diesel engines is suspected of causing increased rates of hay fever and lung cancer".
According to the latest estimates provided by the WHO European Office, about 80,000 deaths a year in Europe can be attributed to long term exposure to road traffic air pollution. Research suggests that apart from professional drivers and road workers the elderly and the very young are most at risk of adverse health impacts. The research on day to day variations in urban pollution and respiratory diseases and related hospital admissions show the most significant findings in relation to young and old.
The health costs of traffic-related air pollution are very high. In Switzerland, they amounted to 1,600 million Swiss francs in 1993. The estimates were limited to several health indicators including premature deaths, hospitalization for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and effects on patients with chronic bronchitis and asthma. Loss of production, medical treatment and administrative costs were also included.
Traffic noise has emerged in recent years as an ever present but often underestimated pollutant in our lives. In Europe, the population exposed to levels above 65 dB (A) increased from 15% in 1980s to 26% in the early 1990s. For comparison, speech can be understood fairly well with background noise levels up to 55 dB (A). Environmental noise affects health and well-being physically, mentally and socially. There is ample evidence showing that high noise levels interfere with speech and communication, cause sleep disturbance, decreased learning ability and scholastic performance, increase stress-related hormones, blood pressure changes, ischaemic heart disease as well as the use of psychotropic drugs and medicines.
"Re-designing our urban transport policies could bring massive health benefits for Europe", said Dr Carlos Dora, environmental epidemiologist at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. "Car mobility in cities, paradoxically, adds to the sedentary lifestyle. Increased physical activity, especially walking and cycling, will reduce death and disability from chronic disease and improve quality of life". These basic forms of transportation halve the risk for coronary heart disease, reduce risk for diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity and colon cancer. The list includes most of the prevalent chronic diseases in the European population. The potential of physical activity to improve health and well-being of the European is enormous.
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