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Air pollution the main environmental health hazard in Europe

Utsikt over Paris, Eiffeltårnet til venstre.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released the new «Air Quality in Europe 2014 report» yesterday. According to the report, air pollution in Europe comes with a high price tag, and while policies have improved air quality overall, air pollution is still the main environmental health hazard.

– Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) led to an estimated 458 000 premature deaths in Europe in 2011, says senior scientist Cristina Guerreiro from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and lead author of the report.

In addition, it is estimated that around 17 000 premature deaths in Europe in 2011 were due to short-term exposure to ozone.

City dwellers lead dangerous lives

Cristina Guerreiro
Cristina Guerreiro, Senior Scientist at NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research. Photo: Ingar Næss.

The annual air quality report collates data from official monitoring stations across Europe. It shows that almost all city dwellers are exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO). For some pollutants, more than 95 % of the urban population is exposed to unsafe levels.

Alongside the report, the EEA is publishing data showing pollution levels in almost 400 cities across Europe. While many large cities have relatively low levels of pollution, others have pollution levels above EU limits for a significant part of the year.

– Cities such as Barcelona, Paris, London and Rome at times experience very high levels of NO2, says Guerreiro, – and this is mainly due to car traffic exhaust.

Tiny particles most dangerous

The most serious air pollutant is fine particulate matter, similar to dust or soot but with very small particles capable of penetrating deep into lungs. Long-term exposure to particulate matter was responsible for the vast majority of air pollution-caused premature deaths in Europe in 2011, the study shows, while high levels of ground level ozone over short episodes also caused a significant number of premature deaths.

– Concentrations and emissions of benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a matter of concern. Emissions of this pollutant increased by more than a fifth between 2003 and 2012 as urban use of woodstoves and biomass heating increased, Guerreiro explains. – In 2012 almost nine out of ten city dwellers were exposed to BaP above WHO reference levels.

More harmful than thought

An increasing body of scientific research shows that air pollutants may be more harmful than previously thought. Air pollution’s effect on respiratory illnesses and heart disease is well known, but new studies have shown that it can also affect health in other ways, from foetal development to illnesses late in life.

Alongside health, these pollutants also have a significant effect on plant life and ecosystems. These problems, including eutrophication, acidification and plant damage, have decreased in recent years. However, they are still widespread – for example the long-term objective for limiting ozone was exceeded across 87 % of Europe’s agricultural area in 2012, the report shows. The estimated cost of the crop yield loss in Europe due to exposure to ozone in 2010 was around EUR 3 billion, Guerreiro adds.

Source and link to the Air Quality in Europe 2014 report: