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Eliminating environmental threats to human health requires transparent decision-making and public participation

Our health and well-being is contingent on the quality of air we breathe, the water we drink and the ground we live on. Environmental causes are responsible for 22% of all deaths worldwide each year: for 17% of all cancers, 25% of strokes and 44% of asthma cases. According to a report published by the World Bank in 2016, in Europe and Central Asia, air pollution generated by vehicles, industry and energy production caused more than 500,000 premature deaths, which cost a staggering $1.2 trillion in welfare losses. The amount is nearly equivalent to one tenth of the GDP of the entire European Union in 2013. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2013, more than 38% of disease outbreaks in the Caucasus and 30% in Central Asia were water-related. The numbers are even more dismal for South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific regions, where air pollution was responsible for the deaths of more than 4 million people in 2013. South Asia had the most deaths per 100,000 people from air pollution (106 per 100,000 persons). Finally, these alarming figures are further exacerbated by data on other health hazards, including exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events related to climate change.

Over the past 30 years, this situation has led countries in the pan-European region to establish mechanisms to tackle the risks and challenges associated with environment and health. Several UNECE conventions and programmes are responding to these challenges. Furthermore, UNECE is a key partner of the European Environment and Health Process, which is managed by WHO.

Despite the undeniable need to raise public awareness and seek public input on environment and health issues, the European Environment and Health Process has been facing challenges related to transparency and a participatory approach to decision-making. Greater awareness of environmental risks on human health is not possible if the public is not offered sufficient opportunities to get access to all the relevant information and participate in decision-making at national and international level that impacts on their environment.

This was one of the conclusions of a special thematic session on the European Environment and Health Process, held during the 21st meeting of the Working Group of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).

The meeting took stock of the measures taken by the Convention’s Parties to promote access to information and public participation in decision-making related to environment and health, focusing particularly on the preparations for the sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health (Ostrava, Czechia,13-15 June 2017). The meeting was attended by almost 100 representatives from Governments, international organizations, including WHO, and representatives from NGOs, academia and the private sector.

A number of challenges were identified, particularly with regard to opportunities for the public to access and comment draft working papers and progress reports or participate in decision-making related to environment and health matters at the national and international levels. The existing system of stakeholder participation at the European Environment and Health Process was considered to be restrictive, as it only allowed the participation of a small number of umbrella organizations and its accreditation procedures were insufficiently transparent. In this context, it was highlighted that a more inclusive process and broad participation should be promoted. In addition, although NGOs could play a key role in raising awareness and help build capacities on environment and health issues, their meaningful participation in decision-making processes at the national and international levels was often hindered by their own lack of capacities and limited financial resources. Finally, limited financial contributions to support activities of WHO created additional hurdles for NGO participation.

Furthermore, recognizing the need to reduce the risks associated with exposure to toxic substances and chemicals, participants called for greater efforts to be made to promote the principles of the Convention in other processes that are relevant for health matters, such as on chemicals, so that they can also benefit from increased transparency and public participation. In that context, particular reference was made to the Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management and the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, which could also help improve the health and well-being of people around the world.

The Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers protect the rights of every person to a healthy environment. They therefore help Governments to proactively disseminate relevant information, raise public awareness and effectively engage the public in decision-making related to environment and health.

In this regard, the meeting provided practical suggestions for promoting access to information and public participation in such a critical domain, which was in particular timely in view of the upcoming 6th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health. Finally, participants called for strengthening cooperation between the national focal points to the Convention and the Environment and Health Process as a means to improve the effectiveness of the Process and further coordinate efforts regarding environment and health issues.