BRUSSELS – Air pollution is responsible for 60,000 deaths a year in large European cities. Environmental pollution has also caused asthma to flare up among children (10 percent of children in Europe have asthma symptoms). Asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems are the main reasons for children being hospitalized in the EU. At the same time, say experts, the rapid rise in the incidence of cancer in recent years – chiefly of breast and prostate cancer in adults and leukemia in children – is largely due to environmental factors, specifically chemical pollution of the water, air and food. Matter of urgency Since we know one of the basic causes of a series of health problems, why don’t we do something about it? That was the question that hovered over the round-table discussion «Effects of the Environment on Health» that was held at the European Parliament last week on a Greek initiative. Many European deputies and officials (through none from Greece) attended the conference, which was organized by the Arena program and co-funded by the EU and the Dikaio Municipality of Kos. The project is aimed at raising decision-makers’ awareness of environmental effects on health. Twelve EU countries participate in the program, which is coordinated by Athens University under the leadership of Polyxeni Nikolopoulou-Stamati, an assistant professor of pathological anatomy at Athens University. «Vegetables and fruit are sprayed with insecticides and animals graze near trash dumps. The sources of pollution are known but not controlled, and the piecemeal measures taken to curb them are ineffective,» Nikolopoulou-Stamati told Kathimerini. «The unfettered use of chemicals cannot continue. It is an urgent priority to raise the awareness of decision-makers and persuade them to adopt long-term measures.» «In recent years we have observed inexplicable changes, such as an increase in the incidence of cancer, even in children, cases of premature adolescence (1 percent of girls in the US reach puberty at 8) and genital dysplasia in embryos,» Professor Vivyan Howard of Liverpool University said in his address. «We are all exposed to thousands of chemicals. And with embryos, even minimal exposure may have drastic effects on them in later life.» Many pollutants, dioxins among them, endanger the unborn as they reach the embryo through the uterus, raising the likelihood of miscarriage and congenital abnormalities. As Nikolopoulou-Stamati noted: «Dioxins act like hormones and even small amounts of them may affect our health. An embryo that has not developed fatty tissue is exposed to such toxins. What is more, they accumulate and are not expelled by the body, so how can we set safe exposure levels?» Children are also vulnerable after birth. As they play and run around, they breath more rapidly than adults and the entrance to their respiratory system is closer to the ground. Such pollutants are heavier than air and they subside, making the layer of air closest to the ground more polluted. Moreover, children’s nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems are not fully developed, which diminishes their ability to expel certain toxins. In some parts of Europe, as much as 10 percent of infants suffer physical and mental disorders that are attributed to exposure to lead, mercury and other deleterious substances. Although we are «fully aware of the negative consequences of exposure to at least some of the substances used in industry, we keep using them. And that is because we are fixated on numbers,» said David Gee, of the European Environment Agency. «According to statistics, environmental factors are responsible for 2-5 percent of deaths in Europe. Many will say that the percentage is low. But even a minimal percentage can be important when it concerns human health,» he said. And, as the experts noted, there are major industrial interests to contend with. «They even objected when it was proposed that toys for 3-year-olds should not contain carcinogenic substances,» Howard told Kathimerini.