Respiratory diseases among the EU’s biggest killers

Respiratory conditions linked to industrial and agricultural emissions killed 670,000 EU citizens in 2012. Men were more affected than women. EurActiv France reports.

Poor air quality is one of the biggest risks to public health in the European Union. According to Eurostat, 13% of premature deaths in the European Union are linked to respiratory problems.

Lung cancer alone is responsible for almost half of deaths from respiratory conditions, and accounts for 5.2% of the EU’s total premature death toll. Pneumonia, bronchitis and other chronic respiratory conditions are also major causes of death.

Men more affected than women

The number of deaths from respiratory diseases varies greatly from one country to another. In the United Kingdom, for example, they represent 20.3% of all premature deaths, compared to 5.8% in Latvia.

On average, 60% of those affected across Europe are men, but this rises to 75% in Estonia and Lithuania. The few exceptions are Denmark, the United Kingdom and Sweden, where women make up just over 50% of deaths from respiratory diseases.

While respiratory conditions kill a large number of elderly people in most European countries, lung cancer also affects many younger people.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer accounts for around 40% of all deaths from respiratory diseases, while the flu, which is the subject of many high profile health campaigns, only represents 0.3% of the total. The share of lung cancer in the respiratory disease death toll is lowest in Portugal (20.9%) and highest in Estonia (60.4%).

An extremely widespread disease, lung cancer is deadliest in Europe and North America. In 90% of cases, it is caused by smoking, both active and passive, and it can take on different forms depending on the kind of tobacco used.

Apart from causing lung cancer, smoking damages the entire respiratory system, which over time make it vulnerable to other kinds of disease, like pneumonia or bronchitis.

Fighting smoking, described by the European Commission as “the single largest avoidable health risk in the European Union”, is an efficient, if indirect, way to tackle all respiratory diseases.

The danger from agricultural emissions

A report published in Nature highlights the role of pollutants emitted by agriculture in respiratory diseases. The phenomenon is particularly severe in China, where a combination of agricultural ammonia and sulphates from coal-fired power stations mix to form a harmful cocktail.

In Europe and the United States, a similarly toxic mixture is formed by agricultural ammonia and particulate matter from vehicle exhausts.

New emissions standards introduced in the European Union this year aim to address this problem, but have been criticised as too relaxed by health campaigners. The new limit of 25 microgrammes of fine particulate matter per cubic metre is more than double the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of ten microgrammes per cubic metre.

Source: Euractive/Eurostat

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