WHO Europe. Developing Indicators of climate change: pollen (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)
In Sept 2013 the World Health Organization has released the report “Health and environment in the WHO European region: creating resilient communities and supportive environments”. In this report are identified specific risks to health from diverse social and environmental backgrounds including climate change in Europe.
“Many public health challenges of our times, such as those associated with demographic changes, growing health inequalities and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases, have complex connections to the physical environment. The environment must be recognised as not only a source of potential hazards, but also a health-promoting and health-protecting asset that can extend life, improve its quality and increase overall well-being. A comprehensive understanding of the relationship between health and the environment requires a forward-looking perspective and insight into the composite interactions among the physical, biological and social spheres.”
“Health 2020” – the European health policy framework adopted in 2012 – recognizes that environmental determinants of health are as important as biological, social and behavioural determinants for creating, maintaining and restoring health. Furthermore, some of the key functions and domains of public health services address environmental determinants of health through various pathways, such as monitoring, assessing and responding to health hazards; promoting and protecting health; and advancing public health research.”
The World Health Organization’s European Centre for Environment and Health (WHO/ECEH) is the primary source of knowledge, technical expertise and normative guidance relating to the environment and health in the WHO European Region. A special focus of the work of WHO/ECEH is its support to the European Environment and Health Process (EHP).
The Environment and Health Information System (ENHIS) provides a platform for quantifying levels of exposure to contaminants and rates of environmentally-mediated diseases across the WHO European Region. It serves as a one-stop access point for information on priority environmental health issues related to the European Environment and Health Process.
ENHIS includes more than 20 indicators, which reflect regional priority goals identified and reaffirmed at the latest Ministerial Conferences on Environment and Health. The indicators are regularly updated using data from WHO databases and other international databases, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, the European Environment Agency, EUROSTAT, international surveys and national data sources. The topics covered by ENHIS include waterborne diseases; access to water and sanitation; unintentional injuries; physical activity and obesity; exposure to selected air pollutants; tobacco smoking; mould and dampness in homes; exposure to persistent organic pollutants and metals; mortality due to specific cancers; occupational injuries; exposure to radon; and noise. WHO/ECEH has been working on developing additional ENHIS indicators, which are necessary for monitoring progress towards specific commitments of the Parma Declaration. Some of the new indicators are access to green spaces in cities, exposure to allergenic pollen and mortality due to heat waves.
Environmental health impact assessment
Impact assessment – the application of comprehensive and systematic foresight in policy-making – is a familiar approach in the environmental field. Many countries have legislation mandating practices such as environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment and sustainability appraisal. These are routinely applied in the course of formulating and implementing policy at the local, national and supranational level.
Health impact assessment (HIA), which employs several of the same principles as other impact assessment approaches, has gained recognition as an equally important component of the policy process. HIA is now firmly established as a key tool for the implementation of the “health in all policies” agenda, and has greatly encouraged the inclusion of health considerations in policy decision-making in other sectors through open and participatory processes.
- Environmental health inequalities
- Sustainable development
- Environmental health and economics
- Chemical safety
- Industrially contaminated sites
- Air quality
- Transport and health
- Housing and urban health
- Water and sanitation
- Worker’s health protection
- Climate change
- Extreme weather events
- Environmentally friendly health systems
Specific risks identified by the WHO to health from climate change in Europe
• Food productivity is projected to decrease in parts of the European Region, potentially threatening food security and exacerbating malnutrition;
• Warmer temperatures are expected to foster an increase in food-transmitted infections and waterborne diseases;
• Climate change is affecting air quality by altering wind patterns, increasing fires and accelerating desertification, potentially worsening respiratory diseases;
• The amount of airborne pollen (which can trigger asthma and other allergic diseases4) is increasing in Europe, and the pollen season has expanded by an average of 10–11 days over the last 30 years;
• The geographical distribution of vectors, including disease-transmitting ticks and other insects, has significantly expanded, increasing the risk of vector-borne infections; and
• Climate change may indirectly play a role in the distribution of West Nile fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever.
I have special interest in this publication based on that the WHO/ECEH has been working on developing additional ENHIS indicators and, among them, includes the “exposure to allergenic pollen”. As Aerobiologist, I have performed research quantifying airborne pollen release and atmospheric transport in relation with meteorological conditions and levels of urbanization. The results reflect that the atmospheric pollen load is a good bio-indicator for monitoring environmental situations. The variety of pollen types present in the atmosphere, also with, its concentration and its allergenic capacity due to synergistic interactions with industrial pollutants (SO2, NO2, NH3, O3, VEPs), can be applied to indicate the health threaten state of the air that we are exposed to. Furthermore, the study of the pollen load present in our atmosphere can serve us to identify the health state of our ecosystem.
The the concentration of atmospheric pollen loads can be applied as indicators of;
- the composition of the ecosystem (i.e. it shows the present and behaviour of invasive species like ragweed)
- the environmental health of an ecosystem for self preservation (i.e. type of varieties, level of concentration and viability of the pollen to fertilise other plants), as well as,
- it reflects climatic alterations exerting pressure over the ecosystem in itself by making significant changes in the plant natural life cycles i.e. triggering longer pollen seasons.
It is my believe that monitoring actively the pollen load in the atmosphere can help us to understand better our environment as it happens by studying the plankton in our oceans. The European Commission has related air quality to just man made generated pollutants. I believe that monitoring biological aerosols like “pollen load” should be included in the EC directive for Air Quality, as it is pointed out by the European WHO report and the State Environmental Public Health Indicators Collaborative (SEHIC) from USA .