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Frequently Asked Questions

What are environmental stressors?

Environmental stressors are external influences that cause disturbance to individuals and may be harmful to their health. Examples of environmental stressors include air and noise pollution. BEST-COST will be looking into the socioeconomic cost of these environmental stressors and proposing new research methodologies to measure the impact.

What is the burden of disease?

The burden of disease is the impact of living with an illness or injury as measured by the resulting financial cost, mortality or morbidity rate. Environmental stressors, including air and noise pollution, can contribute to the estimated burden of disease.

Expertise from the Global Burden of Disease Study is brought to BEST-COST through its consortium partner the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research centre based at the University of Washington. BEST-COST will develop an improved and consensual burden of disease framework to estimate the health impact of environmental stressors.

How does air pollution impact health?

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe. It is the contamination of indoor or outdoor environments, which can lead to respiratory and cardiac diseases (among others), exacerbate symptoms of existing conditions, and worsen morbidity and mortality rates. Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death from air pollution, followed by lung diseases and lung cancer.

Around 96% of the EU’s urban population is exposed to health-damaging levels of air pollution, and pollution levels are consistently higher in the more disadvantaged regions of Europe. As a result, air pollution is experienced unequally across Europe, with vulnerable groups less able to evade the damaging impacts and suffering more severe consequences.

How does noise pollution impact health?

Noise pollution is defined as unwanted sound and sound that is harmful to health. Environmental noise is estimated to be the second most important environmental risk factor, after air pollution, in driving disease burden in the EU. Examples of environmental noise pollution are noise from road traffic, railway, and aircraft, industry, wind turbines and construction work at building sites, as well as leisure activities e.g., listening to loud music.

Exposure to noise can disturb communication, concentration, rest, and sleep and leads to emotional responses, often measured as noise annoyance. Furthermore, long-term exposure to noise increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cognitive impairment as well as reduced hearing and tinnitus The European Environmental Agency estimates that environmental noise contributes to 12,000 premature deaths a year due to cardiovascular disease attributable to road traffic noise.

How do air and noise pollution interact?

Several sources of environmental stressors contribute with both air pollution and noise (e.g. road traffic and industry), and a large part of the population, especially in urban areas, are co-exposed to these environmental stressors. Moreover, several reported health impacts are common to noise and air pollution, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cognitive impairment. There is increasing knowledge about the underlying mechanisms for the observed association between these exposures and disease development. Although a growing number of studies, especially on cardiovascular disease, have included exposure to both air pollution and noise, the knowledge on possible interaction between these environmental exposures is still sparse. BEST-COST will explore this interaction further over the course of its research.

How do environmental stressors lead to health inequities?

Environmental stressors disproportionately affect socially disadvantaged groups, which leads to increasing socioeconomic inequalities in health. Vulnerable groups who are less able to avoid exposure to environmental stressors, such as low-income communities, the elderly and children, are at higher risk from the impacts of air and noise pollution and are more likely to have face serious consequences. For example, those who require more affordable housing may have to live close to roads, industrial areas, or airports, which exposes them to higher levels of air and noise pollution.

How are environmental stressors linked to socioeconomic costs?

Exposure to noise and poor air quality have been linked to the exacerbation of disease symptoms, hospital admissions, and even premature deaths, especially for those with cardiorespiratory diseases. There is also a mental health impact, such as increased stress levels and lack of sleep for noise pollution. The worsening of illness and rise in hospital admission also has a large economic cost and the symptoms caused by high pollution levels can lead to people missing school or work, which can lead to lasting socioeconomic impacts by placing them at a disadvantage in earning income. Exposure to environmental stressors disproportionately affects socially disadvantaged groups, and therefore contributes to the widening socioeconomic inequalities and inequities in health observed persistently in Europe.

How will improved methodological frameworks help to reduce pollution levels?

The BEST-COST improved methodologies will generate solid and harmonised scientific evidence on the socioeconomic cost of environmental stressors. This will act as the basis for evidence-based policy- and decision-making at EU, national and local level, to reduce health threats and burdens resulting from environmental exposures.

BEST-COST will begin by trialing its methodologies in five European countries (Belgium, Estonia, France, Norway, Portugal), before exploring transferability to other countries as well as other environmental stressors such as chemicals. You can read more about our transferability work here.