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Europeans told: breathing, drinking a health hazard

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The life expectancy of Europeans is being cut short by almost a year because of air pollution, while water contamination may be driving down sperm counts and impairing brain development, a comprehensive report on the region’s environment has found.

The European Environment Agency and the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre, estimate that air pollution in Europe has become so bad that it is reducing average life expectancy by eight and a half months.

In a study released in late May, the agencies reported that up to 95 per cent of those living in European cities were exposed to levels of fine particulate matter in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines.

They found that air pollution in the region was contributing to cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and asthma – and these effects were being amplified by other environmental factors including water contamination, noise pollution and a lack of green spaces.

The agencies noted growing concern about the presence of chemicals in human water supplies – particularly possible effects on hormones.

“Global sales of products from the chemicals sector doubled between 2000 and 2009,” the Environment and human health report said, adding that water treatment was failing to fully remove many residues of pharmaceuticals and substances that interfere with the endocrine system.

“There is growing concern about endocrine disrupting chemicals, which affect the hormone system,” the study said. “Effects are not yet fully understood, but the chemicals may contribute to declining sperm count, genital malformation, impaired neural development, obesity and cancer.”

The agencies warned that noise was an important source of stress and harm, affecting cognitive development, sleep and the development of cardiovascular disease.

But they were equivocal about other environmental pollutants such as electronic emissions and the presence of nanoparticles in food containers, clothes, creams, ointments and other consumer goods.

The agencies said there was “no conclusive scientific evidence” of a link between devices that emit electromagnetic fields, such as mobile phones, and cancer.

Similarly, they said little was known about the effect of nanomaterials in the human body, and there was yet to be “adequate assessment of potential risks”.

The report’s authors said research needed to take a more holistic approach to the accumulation of hazards to human health in the environment, rather than assessing the risk posed by each vector individually.

“People are usually exposed to multiple environmental factors throughout their lives, and more research is needed to understand the impacts,” they said. “Science needs to move away from focusing on individual hazards and look instead at the complex, combined effects environmental and lifestyle factors are having on our health.”