Basic environmental health concerns still abundant across Europe

Environment, health officials to come together in Israel next month for WHO European Region conference.

March 29, 2015 17:49
Dr. Srdan Matic

Dr. Srdan Matic. (photo credit: Courtesy)

While environmental health sectors have undergone vast improvements across the European region in recent years, some of the most basic needs – such as accessible water and sanitation means – still remain strikingly unfulfilled in select areas, an expert told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

“It is expected that public health objectives considered very basic and simple, such as clean and safe water and sanitation and soap in every educational facility, would be beyond discussion,” said Dr. Srdan Matic, environment and health coordinator in the World Health Organization’s Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment.

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“And still, this is not the fact. It’s still a big challenge to have [these services] available everywhere. We see that there are a number of countries in Europe – east and west, rich and poor – where school sanitation is a major problem,” he said.

Matic is in Israel ahead of a WHO European Region conference to be held in Haifa between April 28 and April 30, during which member countries will conduct a midterm review about environment and health performance in their jurisdictions – evaluating compliance to pledges made during WHO’s Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Parma, Italy, in March 2010.

He met with the Post at the Jerusalem offices of the Environmental Protection Ministry, which will be hosting the Haifa conference in collaboration with the Health Ministry.

“For me, what stands out here is that some of the basics really need to be discussed and pushed for,” Matic said. “Those are not as technologically complicated [issues] such as reducing exposure to cadmium or eliminating mercury.”

Even in the wealthiest, most Western countries there exist “significant pockets of poverty,” he added.

In Parma, 53 governments from the entire European region – of which Israel is a member – adopted a declaration in which they committed to reducing the adverse health impact of environmental threats in the next decade. The Parma conference was the fifth in a line of conferences initiated as part of the European Environment and Health Process, which began in the late 1980s.

Through their declaration and a “commitment to act” made in Parma, the participating governments agreed to implement national programs to provide equal opportunities to each child by 2020, according to WHO.

Specifically, the Parma declaration focused on overcoming the health and environmental impacts of climate change; the health risks to children and vulnerable population groups posed by poor environmental conditions; and socioeconomic and gender inequalities in the human environment and health sectors.

It also focused on the burden of non-communicable diseases; the effects of endocrine-disrupting and bio-accumulating chemicals and particles; and insufficient resources in portions of the WHO European Region.

“Our assessment in the meeting is going to be that there has been progress but it has been uneven, between different countries and different issues,” Matic said, acknowledging that the vagueness of some of the declaration’s terms could pose an issue in performing such evaluations.

One of the first specific and more measurable goals undertaken by the Parma conference attendees was the development of plans to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by the end of 2015, he explained.

By this deadline, Matic said that the majority of the members will have plans in place, and that 37 of the countries have already implemented relevant policies.

Despite these positive steps, two of the members, Russia and Kazakhstan, are still asbestos producers, Matic said. While asbestos producers argued that a certain form of asbestos – chrysotile asbestos – does not pose the same danger as other forms, Matic argued that science “undoubtedly shows toxicity of all forms” of asbestos.

“There is no such thing as a good asbestos, and the best way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is a total ban,” he said.

Nonetheless, asbestos manufacturing nations have a problem simply calling off production due to their economic dependence on sales of the material, and manufacturers’ roles as major employers.

“It’s a discussion about the politics and the economy of asbestos,” Matic said.

“The right discussion is not taking place yet, but those are legitimate concerns of asbestos producing countries, and I think they should be addressed. Otherwise we will move nowhere.”

The midterm review conference will provide a forum to assess progress in the programs to curb asbestos-related diseases as well as advancements and challenges in all of commitments made at the Parma conference, to provide guidance toward WHO’s Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, which will be held in 2017.

In addition to publishing a midterm report for the Haifa conference, WHO will be releasing over the next few weeks five other publications addressing progress in specific areas, such as the asbestos-related diseases issue, data from school environments, bio-monitoring methodologies and findings, national policies for climate change adaptation in the health sector, and economic costs of air pollution – the last of which has been drafted together with the OECD, Matic said.

While Israel volunteered to be the host country for the midterm review conference, both Matic and Environmental Protection Ministry chief scientist Sinaia Netanyahu noted that the country has been very involved in the WHO’s environmental component.

Former environmental protection minister Amir Peretz served on WHO’s European Environment and Health Ministerial Board, which consists of four health ministers, four environment ministers and four representatives of intergovernmental organizations.

“There are many success stories in Israel when it comes to environment and health,” Matic said, noting Israel’s accomplishments handling water scarcity. “From that perspective it is a very interesting country, and in many of these areas has fantastic achievements.”

Netanyahu, who served as an alternate to Peretz on the European Environment and Health Ministerial Board, emphasized how pleased both the Environmental Protection Ministry and Health Ministry are to be hosting the conference.

“I think it’s really important on behalf of the ministries. We are really pleased to host such an important event because we do believe that we must interact closely between the work of both ministries, Environment and Health,” she said. “There are so many actions that only great collaboration can ensure successful policies and successful action to maintain public health and minimize exposure to pollutants.”

The director-generals of the Environment and Health ministries, David Leffler and Prof. Arnon Afek respectively, will both be involved in the Haifa midterm conference, as will high-level officials from within the ministries, Netanyahu said.

“We have good collaboration in the health system and the environment system – but here we can be more aware of the work being done in both sectors,” she added.

Looking ahead, Matic said he hopes to learn from the representatives attending the midterm review what they would specifically be interested in accomplishing by the sixth conference in 2017, continually keeping the future in mind.

The European Environment and Health Process must be adaptable to a variety of different “political, planetary, natural and climatic circumstances” in order to maintain relevance, he stressed.

“I think by 2017 the European region should take stock as to what are the big environmental issues in this part of the world and what needs to be done in the decades to come,” Matic said.

“I think what the majority will find out is that what we should be striving to develop is a transformational agenda,” he added. “If we do more of the same, we are just going to get more of the same, and I don’t think it’s going to be enough.”

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