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Environment. A recent report shows alarming reductions in life expectancy from air pollution in southern Europe.

Air that kills

After three years of studies, the results of the Med Hiss project (Mediterranean Health Interview Surveys Studies) coordinated by ARPA Piemonte, were presented in September. It is an unpublished epidemiological survey conducted to calculate the long-term effects of air pollution on the health of inhabitants in four Mediterranean countries (Italy, France, Slovenia and Spain).

A vast scientific literature has demonstrated the relationship between short-term exposure to air pollution (dust from industrial combustion and automobile traffic) and mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) further confirms that “92 percent of the world population lives in areas where the levels of air quality do not meet the limits set by the WHO” (the most affected area in Europe is the Po River valley).

Few epidemiological studies, however, have focused on the damage to health caused by long-term exposure to high levels of pollution, as the inhabitants of Taranto suffer, who for years have breathed the poisonous fumes from the ILVA industrial complex. The Med Hiss project did not focus solely on the population concentrated in large cities, but expanded its research in much larger areas involving the inhabitants of rural areas who, in theory, should not be affected directly by air pollutants. The epidemiologists crossed data on the dispersion of fine particles, mortality, onset of certain diseases, hospital admissions and medical records of individuals evaluated by the research.

The results all around the European territory are dismaying. Specifically in Italy, as summarized by Ennio Cadum, head of Environmental Epidemiology at ARPA Piemonte, in 2010. There were 33,533 deaths attributed to exposure to PM 2.5. This is a very large number, approximately 7 percent of all deaths registered in Italy (according to the WHO, in the world about 3 million deaths a year are attributable to exposure to pollution from outdoor air and 6.5 million to indoor air pollution). In Italy, 20,221 people have died “for pollution” in the north, 6,968 in the central regions and 6,344 in the south. Nearly 19,000 people passed away in urban areas, while 14,556 died in rural areas.

This also reflected a substantial reduction in life expectancy: In the case of the Italian population, we are talking about an average loss of 9.2 months. However, this figure is not the same in all geographical areas: In the north, life expectancy is reduced by 11.6 months, in the center by eight months and in the south by 5.3 months. Inhabitants of urban areas lose a year and a half of existence, while those who live in areas far from major cities lose nine months. Exposure to air pollutants would be more damaging to women, whose life expectancy decreases by 10 months (8.5 months for men).

The decline in life expectancy on a national basis, however, hides alarming statistics for the population that lives in urban areas. The case of the Piedmont and Turin is a clear example: If at the regional level, a Piedmontese choked by pollutants lives 9.6 months less, the life expectancy of a Turinese is reduced by 24.7 months. About two and a half years.

There are possible solutions, for example to implement more efficient transportation systems, better waste management, use of “clean” fuels in all homes, development of renewable energy and reduction of industrial emissions. That would be a massive public works project and does not seem to be on the agenda of this government.

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