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Environmental Health

Environmental health refers to aspects of human health and diseases that are affected by the environment. It relates to the direct pathological effects of chemicals, radiation and some biological agents, and the often indirect effects on health and well-being of the broad physical, psychological, social and aesthetic environment, which includes factors such as housing, urban development, land use and transport. The WHO estimates that the environment is responsible for as much as 24% of the total global burden of disease. Since human health is closely linked to the quality of the environment, environmental health concerns have led to the passing of some of Malta’s earliest environmental legislation, such as the 1967 Clean Air Act (Cap. 200).

Environmental health highlights that to protect human health it is also necessary to protect natural systems in the wide sense. This is because healthy ecosystems provide the conditions and processes that sustain human life. They provide food and medicines, together with services such as purification of air and freshwater, detoxification of sediments and soils, maintenance of soil fertility, control of potential pest and disease-causing species, flood mitigation, and, stabilisation of landscapes against erosion. Healthy ecosystems also buffer the land against ocean storms, regulate climate, and help to maintain attractive areas for recreation, which play an important role in ensuring physical and mental wellbeing and thus reducing health care costs.

Malta’s Environmental Health Challenges

Malta’s principal environmental health challenges relate to respiratory diseases, which may be related to air pollution. Indeed, the latter is a major factor in environmental health, and arises from sources such as road transport, thermal power stations, waste incineration plants not meeting the required standards, landfills, construction sites, quarrying and mining. Very young children, and even unborn babies, are particularly sensitive to air pollutants. The WHO reports that the following are among the major diseases and conditions associated with airborne environmental determinants: gastrointestinal diseases; cancers; cardiovascular diseases; respiratory diseases; overweight and obesity; injuries; and, developmental disorders.

The principal air pollutants in Malta are particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and benzene. Malta's most significant air pollutants however, are particulates, the concentrations of which exceed EU standards in certain areas, and ozone, which originates principally from transboundary  sources but also from traffic and power generation emissions. Various measures have already taken to address air pollution. The next step necessary for further improvements in air quality is the introduction of more environmentally-friendly transport measures and the use of cleaner and alternative energy sources.

Noise is also an area of potentially significant environmental health impact, although there is as yet little public awareness of its effects on human health. The principal cause of environmental noise in Malta is traffic.

Institutional structures

Environmental Health is a responsibility of the Department for Environmental Health within the Ministry for Social Policy. However due to the strong link with environment, and a 20-year cooperation in the context of the WHO Health and Environment process, the Department for Environmental Health and MEPA actively collaborate in areas such as policy formulation, research, legislation and implementation.

Policy Framework

The WHO and the European Union (EU) have developed a number of strategies and action plans to address environmental health issues. As part of the WHO-led European Environment and Health Process, which began in 1989, a UNECE Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE) was adopted by European Ministers at the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in 2004. The CEHAPE maintains that effective action for protecting children’s health should emphasize primary prevention, equity, poverty reduction and health promotion. It focuses on priority goals in the following four thematic areas: morbidity and mortality related to water and sanitation; accidents and injuries; outdoor and indoor pollution; and, chemicals and other hazardous agents.

EU Environmental policy has also given a high profile to environmental health. The link between environmental quality and human health is highlighted in the EU Sixth Environment Action Programme, and public health is one of the seven priorities in the renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy of 2006. In 2003, the EU developed a European Environment and Health Strategy, This strategy was closely followed by the 2004 European Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010, which aims at improving the EU environmental health information chain, filling the knowledge gap, reviewing policies and improving communication.

At a national level, Malta has also prepared a National Environmental Health Action Plan (NEHAP). Malta’s 1997 NEHAP is currently in the process of being updated, and the new NEHAP will ensure greater institutional commitment from across government, supported by an inter-ministerial committee on Environmental Health. The revised NEHAP focuses on the two CEHAPE priorities considered to be most relevant to Malta during a 2006 stakeholder consultation meeting: outdoor and indoor pollution, and accidents and injuries.