A systematic study of the environment and health
Since the 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been investigating how harmful environmental influences affect public health in different countries. In co-operation with other institutions WHO developed the "environmental burden of disease" concept , abbreviated to: EBD. In the context of EBD studies, environmental and health data are linked and statistically evaluated. Data on the frequency of heart attacks in Germany and on noise pollution amongst the population can be used, for example, to estimate the proportion of heart attacks in Germany due to environmental noise. Population studies also contribute to determine how the risk of heart attacks increases with noise pollution.
For Germany, the Federal Environment Agency performs a variety of EBD analyses to determine which environmental factors (stressors) go hand in hand with high disease burdens, i. e. that environmental protection is particularly important for our health.
Current research and results
According to calculations by the Federal Environment Agency, approx. 40 to 50,000 premature deaths from acute respiratory disease, cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer can be attributed annually to particulate matter exposure of the German population. This corresponds to a loss of about eight years of life per 1,000 inhabitants.
EBD analyses of the health effects of particulate matter, ozone and benzene in the air, noise, indoor tobacco smoke and cadmium, for example, will be carried out in further studies.
Environmental burden of disease: a method with potential
The EBD approach is an important tool to illustrate the importance of environmental protection to health. On the basis of EBD studies it is also possible to estimate the level of health-related costs which may be saved by a healthy environment.
Even if more useful information on health-related environmental protection is provided, the EBD approach must be further developed and adapted to the current state of research. For example, the EBD approach does not yet sufficiently take into consideration the fact that diseases or premature deaths are mostly caused by a combination of different (environmental) factors. Solely how the loss of quality of life as a result of various diseases can be uniformly determined and compared is still a matter of intense discussion among specialists. By conducting further research projects and international co-operation, the Federal Environment Agency is also participating in efforts to bring about methodological improvements to the EBD concept.