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U.N.: Particle Pollution Shortens Life

November 29, 2004

GENEVA – The burning of fossil fuels and wood is cutting life expectancy in some parts of Europe by up to two years, despite a significant reduction in other pollutants, the United Nations said Monday.

A series of agreements between European countries has already cut the amount of many pollutants such as sulfur, but fine particles – which are narrower than a human hair – have “escaped international control measures,” the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe said.

“It has long been known that fine particles can be inhaled with the air we breathe,” the commission said at the start of a weeklong meeting on air pollution in Geneva. “But it is relatively recently that scientific studies have begun to show the extent of the health effects and how these can be linked to the concentrations of fine particles in the air.”

In particular, recent studies have shown for the first time that small particle pollution can cause cardiovascular problems, as well as lung and respiratory diseases.

“We inhale them and get them very deep into our lungs and then the bloodstream,” said Markus Amann, a senior official of the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which is researching the effects of particle pollution. “This causes chronic inflammation, especially to the heart, (and) is one of the major causes of heart attacks.”

While other pollutants, which consist of larger particles, fall from the air quite quickly, small particles can stay aloft much longer and travel long distances from their source. Motor vehicle exhaust fumes, power stations and heavy industrial processes such as making steel and concrete are all adding to the problem, Amann told reporters.

The situation is most acute in heavily industrialized areas such as Belgium, the Netherlands, northern Italy and parts of Russia and Ukraine, where fine particle pollution is reducing life expectancy by about two years – compared with a European average loss of eight months – Amann said.

Small particle pollution also afflicts many other regions of the world, particularly parts of Asia and North America, but scientific surveys have only been carried out in Europe and the United States, Amann explained.

“All industrialized and developing countries have this problem,” he said. “To solve this problem, one needs an international approach.”

“There are no quick fixes and the effects will continue unless action is taken on many fronts,” UN commission said, adding that fine particle pollution cuts the average life expectancy by about the same amount as road accidents.




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