WHO conference to tackle water and transport

Largest ever gathering of European environment and health ministers opens in London

Environment and health ministers from 51 European countries assemble in London tomorrow for a three-day conference expected to produce an international protocol to improve human health by setting higher water quality standards and a charter to reduce the environmental impacts of transport. Billed as the biggest ever gathering of its kind, the conference has been organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and is the third pan-European meeting of environment and health ministers, after similar gatherings in Frankfurt in 1989 and Helsinki in 1994. The main outcomes of the meeting are intended to be as follows:

- Signature of a joint WHO/UN-ECE protocol on water and health. Essentially aimed at the countries of eastern and southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the protocol aims to prevent and reduce water-related diseases by addressing drinking water quality and sanitation, agricultural water supplies and the establishment of effective health risk monitoring systems. Signatory countries will have to set targets for and publish reports on 11 areas of water management policy. The protocol is deemed necessary because of the increased incidence of "medieval" diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever.

- Adoption of a Charter on Transport, Health and Environment. Though not legally binding, the charter was drawn up through intergovernmental meetings of officials from all three departments. Countries will commit to take health and environment into account when formulating transport and land use policies and consider the full cost implications of policies in terms of their impact on human health. The charter will contain action plans with targets to reduce human exposure to pollutants and reduce injury and death rates on roads. The charter has been drawn up because WHO believes that the health impacts of policies "have been recognised too slowly". The adoption of the charter will be given added impetus by the presentation of a study showing that particulate pollution from transport sources is responsible for 26.7 billion euros' worth of health damage annually in France, Switzerland and Austria alone.

- Improved measures to tackle climate change and ozone depletion. Ministers will be urged to take preventive action to minimise the health effects of these threats and increase monitoring to detect early manifestations of their impacts. WHO is calling for the development of systems to follow environmental indicators, bio-indicators of health risk and population health status across Europe.

In parallel with the WHO conference NGOs will also hold their biggest-ever gathering, called the Healthy Planet Forum. The conference will include three large events focusing on health and environment in relation to food, local communities and transport.

Follow Up:
WHO Europe, tel: +45 39 17 13 44. More details are available at the London Conference website. Healthy Planet Forum, tel: +44 171 839 7171.

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