Health inequalities are contributing to deaths and an ‘environmental underclass’

Staffordshire University Professor Jon Fairburn has contributed to a new report World Health Organisation report.

Professor Jon Fairburn with the WHO report

Unequal exposures depend on where and how people live their lives but we know that disadvantaged people often experience multiple impacts, potentially creating an ‘environmental underclass.

Jon Fairburn, Professor of Sustainable Development

Disadvantaged groups are among those most affected by environmental hazards contributing to health inequalities and deaths across Europe. This is according to a new international report published today by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe.

The report cites there has been an increase in some common challenges and inequalities across Europe since 2012, when the last report was published. The report is in response to the Ostrava Declaration in 2017 on Environment and Health, where governments resolved to work to tackle these issues.

It provides evidence for 19 different indicators covering the broad categories of urban areas, basic services, housing, working conditions and injuries.

Professor Jon Fairburn, one of the report authors, explained: “Environmental risk factors account for at least 15% of mortality in the WHO European Region.

“Unequal exposures depend on where and how people live their lives but we know that disadvantaged people often experience multiple impacts, potentially creating an ‘environmental underclass’.”

The report identifies inequalities relating to:

  • energy poverty,
  • damp homes,
  • noise perception,
  • thermal comfort.

Using information from international databases, it is estimated that 50m households in the EU experienced some sort of energy poverty where they are unable to heat their homes, are reliant on dirtier fuel sources or struggle to pay the bills.

Dampness in the home affects 15% of households in Western Europe, but over 20% for single parents. In the UK, the figures increase to 16% and 26% respectively; which is higher than those for Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland and several other countries in Eastern Europe.

Professor Fairburn added: “Greece has been particularly hard hit in this regard. Whilst the rest of Europe has experienced a slight decline in households having difficulty paying their energy bills, data shows that all sections of Greek society have had a big increase in household bills and are struggling to pay. It shows that two-thirds of Greeks below the relative poverty line have difficulty paying their energy bills.”

The report estimates that outdoor air pollution is the cause of 500,000 deaths in the WHO European Region, inadequate housing is responsible for 100,000 deaths and at least one million healthy years of life are lost every year from traffic related environmental noise in Western Europe.

Examples of health inequalities include:

  • the least affluent 20% of the population are more than twice as likely to live in high pollution areas compared to the most affluent 20% in society.
  • the ability to keep cool in summer is a growing problem that shows a clear social gradient, with the poorest groups having the greatest difficulty.

Professor Jon Fairburn added: “Vulnerable groups are vulnerable for multiple reasons. For example, children’s bodies are still growing and forming so poor air quality can have both short and long-term impacts on their health.

“Poorer people tend to live in areas with higher levels of traffic and industrial activity leading to greater exposure. Employment status, education level and income can also affect people’s underlying health conditions which influences their sensitivity and their vulnerability to the health effects of air pollution.”

Professor Fairburn said the report provided clear guidance and recommendations for governments and policy makers.

 “The report demonstrates that while disadvantaged population subgroups can have five times higher exposure levels or injury rates than advantaged subgroups, progress is possible. Such health inequalities are preventable to a large extent through environmental interventions and good national policies.”

  • Professor Fairburn chaired the meetings of the expert group by the World Health Organization. As well as the chapter on Energy poverty, he also co-wrote the key messages and conclusions. 

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