Welcome-adress Thomas Loster
Experts discussed major and minor concerns of people

Kick-off Session "The risks of living in Munich - perceived and actual"

Identifying and classifying risks to which people are exposed, taking preventive measures, and making recommendations for coming to terms with these risks – these are tasks that concern both the Munich Re Foundation and the GSF National Research Centre for Environment and Health. From 1 July to 1 November 2005, Munich Reinsurance Company presented an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst entitled Chance : Risiko. At the close of the exhibition on 31 October 2005, the Munich Re Foundation and the GSF invited representatives from state, municipal, and local environmental and health authorities and from the fields of politics and business to attend a podium discussion with top-notch scientists. The focus was on the risks, both major and minor, real and imaginary, to which the people of Munich, representing the inhabitants of other large cities, are exposed.

The primary aim of the Munich Re Foundation is, as its Chairman, Thomas Loster underlined in his welcoming address, to help people in developing countries achieve a better assessment of risks and come to grips with them. In staging this event, however, the Foundation sought to foster hazard awareness in its more immediate environs and demonstrate that, as a non-profit organisation based in Munich, it also has an interest in the concerns of local citizens. Hence, the risks to which the people of Munich are exposed is a subject that will be examined in more depth in the Foundation's dialogue forums in 2006.

In his introduction, the discussion moderator, Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn from the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Stuttgart, drew attention to the disparity that prevails among the population between risk perception and scientific knowledge. The aim of the podium discussion was therefore to clarify what risks are important and what risks can be discounted.

Traffic in Munich – Fine dust and other pollution hazards

Compared with other cities, Munich has one of the highest volumes of traffic in Germany. Fine and ultra-fine particles in exhaust gases are the main health hazard. In 2005, after EU thresholds had been exceeded on the annually permitted 35 days even before the end of spring – the figure rose to 89 by 1 November – the dangers of fine dust became the subject of lively discussion in the media and the public at large. Prof. Dr. Dr. H.-Erich Wichmann, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the GSF, said the main health hazards were respiratory complaints and cardiovascular disorders. There are other major hazards emanating from road traffic besides fine dust, chief among them being the risk of being injured in a road accident. The negative effects of traffic noise and gaseous pollutants like ozone go unnoticed in the discussion on fine dust.

Wichmann quoted an EU study which reveals that fine dust reduces life expectancy by an average of nine months. Although that may seem a long time, it is nothing compared to the nine lost years that smokers must reckon with. In view of the confirmed evidence about the dangers, it would be important to record fine dust particles of less than 2.5 μm separately, but this has yet to happen. Trying to take the sting out of the problem by moving measuring apparatus to less critical traffic spots is no solution. In Wichmann's opinion, everyone should make their own contribution towards lower emissions – by installing soot filters, for example.

Mobile phone masts in and around the city – A health risk?

The rapid spread of mobile phones – almost 80% of Germans aged 14 and over have one – has channelled attention to the health risks of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. Rüdiger Matthes from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) reported that about a third of the people it had interviewed said they were concerned. However, there is a gap between the perception of risks and their scientific relevance. Although the exposure from mobile phones is much higher, the transmitters are generally thought to be more threatening. This is likely due to the well-known phenomenon that greater weight is given to external dangers than to risks in the immediate sphere of influence.

Some 9% of those interviewed said their health had suffered, although only a small proportion of them were able to specify concrete medical complaints. The main complaints were headaches and insomnia, while the media were also discussing possible effects on the cancer risk, the blood count, and the blood-brain barrier. According to Matthes, scientists are in agreement that many health risks, including abnormal embryonic development, male infertility, and eye cataracts, can arise given high levels of radiation. For this reason, thresholds have been fixed with substantial safety margins. There are indications of detrimental influences below these thresholds, but no incriminating scientific proof. Even though numerous national and international bodies consider the regulations governing mobile communications systems give the population adequate protection, Matthes was in favour of further research to reduce the uncertainties in the evaluation. People can lower their own individual risk by simply restricting their use of mobile phones or by using a hands-free headset. Exposure from the much-feared transmission masts was actually only a hundredth or thousandth of permissible levels.

Children in Munich – The risks they face

"Children are not little grown-ups". Those were the words chosen by Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter Höppe, head of geo risks research at Munich Re, to begin the third talk of the evening. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the particular risks to which children are exposed. The public's subjective perception of environmental risks and the way they are treated in the media do not always reflect the real hazards involved in this connection. The most over-rated risks are radiation from atomic power plants and mobile-phone transmitters and from contaminated food – risks, in other words, that are very difficult for individuals to influence themselves. Risks that are within the parents' sphere of responsibility, on the other hand, like lack of exercise, noise, accidents sustained during sport and play activities, and even allergens are given too little attention. Road accidents are still the greatest risk where children are concerned. But Höppe expects that in Germany environmental risks will soon be far overshadowed by the problem of obesity.

The flu season cometh – An epidemic in Munich?

Dr. Günther Kerscher, head of the health department at Bavaria's ministry of the environment, said he was surprised about the career path of bird flu in the media. In Germany, bird flu was a risk which at the moment should be a worry to at most poultry farmers but not to the general public. "There is no cause for hysteria," Kerscher said. Although the virus has already been present in the Asian region for a number of years, only 118 people have contracted the disease since 2003 and only 61 have died. Seasonal influenza, on the other hand, is completely underrated. The disease is contracted by two to three million people every year in Germany alone, and in the 2004/05 winter, it claimed some 15,000 lives. That is twice as many as die in road accidents. Kerscher's advice: "Get vaccinated."

The danger of a bird flu pandemic cannot be completely ruled out since the H5N1 pathogen is a dangerous virus subtype against which humans have not yet developed any antibodies. At present, however, nobody could make any serious forecasts about the time or extent of a potential pandemic. Although person-to-person transmission is not yet possible, Kerscher was in favour of prevention measures, especially the development of a vaccine. Germany is currently making preparations for the short-term manufacture of a vaccine. The serum can only be produced, however, when a pandemic virus has been identified.

Living alone in Munich – Health issues

The most common status in urban areas is being single. "Living alone is not a risk factor in itself“, said Dr. Hannelore Löwel, head of the GSF working group looking into the epidemiology of chronic diseases. What is alarming, however, is that a very small proportion of single people take part in screenings. It is mainly young men and older women who live alone. A longitudinal study in the city of Augsburg suggests that women and men who live alone have different health behaviours and different risk profiles.

Unfavourable factors are less frequent among single men, who are less prone to high blood pressure and serious lipid disorders than their married counterparts. The main problem among single men is smoking, and among older single women it is high blood pressure and overweight due to a lack of exercise. Ms. Löwel had not discovered any differences in alcohol consumption, though. Her conclusion is that the health effects of living alone mean that the main factors of pathogenesis can only be identified on the basis of age- and sex-related observations.

At the end of the podium discussion, the participants agreed that a fixation on risk can itself become a risk and trigger diseases. Great fears also impede rational action. When risks are involved that are not immediately identifiable or that are new, a substantial role is played by the degree of confidence that is placed in the source of the information. If this confidence is missing, the desire to eliminate the risk altogether gains the upper hand. If people give the information credibility, they can assess their own individual risk and attain risk responsibility. "There is no life without risk, and even if there were, it would certainly not be very attractive", concluded Professor Renn and acknowledged, "Science does not have all the answers either, and that is something scientists must admit too."

"The risks we are exposed to in Munich" is a subject the Munich Re Foundation's dialogue forums will be tackling and discussing in depth in 2006.