Air pollution identified as top health hazard in Europe


The European Environment Agency (EEA) released its annual report on air quality in Europe today, identifying air pollution as 'the single largest environmental health hazard in Europe.' Although air quality in Europe is slowly improving, EEA said it still results in a lower quality of life due to illnesses and an estimated 467 000 premature deaths per year.

The EEA report ‘Air quality in Europe — 2016 report’ presents an updated overview and analysis of air quality in Europe from 2000 to 2014 based on data from official monitoring stations across Europe, and including more than 400 cities.

It shows that in 2014 around 85% of the urban population in the EU were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organization (WHO). Particulate matter can cause or aggravate cardiovascular diseases, asthma and lung cancer.

Exposure to PM2.5 was responsible for about 467 000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2013. Within the 28 EU Member States, premature deaths exceeded 430 000. The estimated impacts of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) exposure were around 71 000 and 17 000 premature deaths respectively in Europe.

“Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx. “We need to tackle the root causes of air pollution, which calls for a fundamental and innovative transformation of our mobility, energy and food systems. This process of change requires action from us all, including public authorities, businesses, citizens and research community.”

The report highlights that air quality has however improved over the years. The annual average PM10 has fallen in 75% of monitored locations during the period 2000 – 2014. Similarly, PM2.5 concentrations, on average, have decreased between 2006 and 2014 for all station types (urban, traffic, background sites, etc.). Exposure to PM levels above WHO recommendations have also decreased over the years. 

Other key findings

  • In 2014, 16% of the 28 EU Member States urban population was exposed to PM10 levels above the EU daily limit value whereas 8% was exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU target value. However, when compared to the stricter WHO Air Quality Guideline values set to protect human health, approximately 50% and 85% of city dwellers were exposed to PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations exceeding the WHO’s recommendations.
  • NO2 affects the respiratory system directly, but also contributes to the formation of PM and O3. In 2014, 7% of the urban population in the EU-28 were exposed to NO2 concentrations above the identical WHO and EU standards, with 94% of all exceedances occurring due to traffic.
  • PM2.5 emissions from coal and biomass combustion in households and from commercial and institutional buildings have not decreased to any significant degree. To lower emissions from these sectors, it is essential to fully implement measures, such as recent changes to the Eco-design Directive for household stoves, the Medium Combustion Plant Directive, and to provide public guidance on good household burning practices, etc.
  • Emissions of ammonia (NH3) from agriculture remain high and contribute especially to sustained PM levels and a number of high-PM episodes in Europe.
  • Air pollution continues to damage vegetation and ecosystems. In this context, the most harmful air pollutants are O3, NH3 and NOx

The report was published on the same day the European Parliament voted in favor on revising the National Emission Ceilings Directive that would make limits even stricter.

The legislation sets targets for emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia and fine particulate matter and estimates an almost 50% improvement in health impact by 2030.

Featured image: Smog at night by Neil K. (CC – Flickr)

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