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Air quality in Europe still poses danger to health and environment

Trafikkert gate i London
Foto: Christine F. Solbakken

The European air quality is slowly improving, but as the Air Quality in Europe 2018 Report shows, air pollution continues to exceed European Union and World Health Organization limits and guidelines. Thus, air pollution is still posing a danger to human health and the environment.

The report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) presents the latest official air quality data reported by more than 2500 monitoring stations across Europe in 2016.

Traffic is a main contributor

Cristina Guerreiro
Cristina Guerreiro, research director at NILU. Photo: Ingar Næss

“We know that road transport is one the main sources of air pollution in Europe”, says research director and main author of the report, Cristina Guerreiro from NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research. “Traffic emits harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. In addition comes polluting emissions from agriculture, energy production, industry and households.”

In 2016, concentrations of particulate matter (PM) continued to exceed the EU limit values and the WHO air quality guidelines in large parts of Europe. For PM10, particles with a diameter of 10 µm or less, concentrations above the EU daily limit value were registered at 19 % of the reporting stations in 19 of the 28 EU Member States (EU-28) and in 8 other reporting countries. For PM2.5, particles with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less, concentrations above the annual limit value were registered at 5 % of the reporting stations in four Member States and four other reporting countries.

WHO’s air quality guidelines for particulate matter are stricter than the EU limit values, and for PM10, they were exceeded at 48 % of the stations and in all the reporting countries except Estonia, Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland. The long-term WHO guidelines for PM2.5 was exceeded at 68 % of the stations located in all the reporting countries, except Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Norway and Switzerland.

The annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) continues to be widely exceeded across Europe, even if concentration and exposure are decreasing. In 2016, around 12 % of all the reporting stations recorded concentrations above this standard, which is the same as the WHO AQG. These stations were located in 19 of the EU-28 and 4 other reporting countries, and 88 % of concentrations above this limit value were observed at traffic stations.

Health impacts of air pollution

Particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground level ozone (O3) cause the biggest harm to human health. High concentrations of air pollution continue to have a negative impact on Europeans, especially those living in urban areas. Air pollution also has considerable economic impacts, cutting lives short, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity across the economy through working days lost due to ill health. Air pollution also negatively impacts ecosystems, damaging soils, forests, lakes and rivers and reducing agricultural yields.

Past and current policies and technology advances have led to slow but steady progress in reducing these negative impacts. Updated estimates in the report indicate that concentrations of PM2.5 were responsible for about 422 000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2015, of which around 391 000 were in the 28 EU Member States.

“We have also included a wider assessment in this year’s report”, says Guerreiro. “Looking back to 1990, we see that premature deaths due to PM2.5 have been cut by about half a million premature deaths between 1990 and 2015, which corresponds to a decrease by about 60%.”

In the report, this decrease is assigned to the implementation of European air quality policies and the introduction of measures at national and local level. These measures have led, for example, to cleaner cars, industry and energy production – which again leads to cleaner air.

Download and read the Air Quality in Europe 2018 report from here: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2018

Air Quality in Europe report series

The Air quality in Europe report series from the EEA presents regular assessments of Europe’s air pollutant emissions and concentrations, and their associated impacts on health and the environment. Based upon the latest official data available from the reporting countries, this updated 2018 report presents new information, including:

  • updated data on air pollutant emissions and concentrations, and urban population exposure (for 2016);
  • extended country scope in the analysis of concentrations, with a more detailed analysis for all the reporting countries;
  • information on the status of reporting of PM2.5 speciation, ozone precursors, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • updated assessments of total population and ecosystems exposure data, and air quality impacts on health (for 2015);
  • evolution over time of the health impacts of air pollution;
  • special focus on ozone, with a summary of ozone formation mechanisms in the atmosphere, as well as some abatement strategies and past trends in Europe.

(Source: the Air Quality in Europe 2018 report)