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Improving air quality in European cities will bring major health benefits

Most people living in European cities are exposed to poor air quality. Latest estimates recently released by the European Environment Agency (EEA), show that although air quality is slowly improving, fine particulate matter (PM) continues to cause the premature death of more than 400 000 Europeans annually. Road transport, agriculture, power plants, industry and households are the biggest emitters of air pollutants.

The EEA’s ‘Air quality in Europe — 2017 report‘  presents an updated analysis of air quality and its impacts, based on official data from more than 2 500 monitoring stations across Europe in 2015. The report was launched by the EEA during the European Week of Regions and Cities 2017.

EU urban population exposed to harmful levels of various air pollutant concentrations 2013-2015 (graphic courtesy EEA).

This year’s report also puts special focus on agriculture, which is an important emitter of air pollutants and greenhouse gases. A wide range of actions, including technically and economically viable measures, are available to reduce emissions from agriculture but have yet to be adopted at the scale and intensity needed the report notes.

As a society, we should not accept the cost of air pollution. With bold decisions and smart investments in cleaner transport, energy and agriculture, we can both tackle pollution and improve our quality of life. It is encouraging to see that many European governments and specifically cities are showing leadership in protecting people’s health by improving air quality. Clean air belongs to everyone, including people living in cities, said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.

Air quality improving but more needs to be done

The data shows that air quality in Europe is slowly improving, thanks to past and current policies and technological developments. All primary and precursor emissions contributing to ambient air concentrations of PM, O3 and NO2 decreased between the years 2000 and 2015 in the EU-28. The largest change was for SOx with a 72 percent reduction whereas the smallest was for NH3 with an 8 percent reduction over the period.

Regarding the remaining pollutants; arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), nickel (Ni), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg) and the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), the report shows a decrease in their emissions between the years 2000 and 2015, although emission levels have stabilised since 2011. The greatest reported emission reductions were for Pb and Ni with a 63 percent and 61 percent decrease respectively.

The smallest reduction was for BaP, a carcinogen, with a 3 percent decrease. The report notes that reported BaP emissions have been underestimated because of incomplete data as BaP is not always included as an individual pollutant in European emissions inventories. BaP is found mainly in PM2.5 though the current Air Quality Directive (2004) “prescribes that BaP concentration measurements should be made in the PM10 fraction”.

However, the report suggests that emissions have dropped since the introduction of the revised Fuel Quality Directive (2009).

The EEA report shows that poor air quality continues to have significant health impacts. The European Commission is committed to tackling this and help Member States make sure that the quality of their citizens’ air is of the highest standard, said Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

However, high concentrations of air pollution still have significant impacts on Europeans’ health, with particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) causing the biggest harm. According to the report, PM2.5 concentrations were responsible for an estimated 428 000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2014, of which around 399 000 were in the EU-28.

Poor air quality also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs, reducing workers’ productivity, and damaging soil, crops, forests, lakes and rivers.

  • Particulate matter: 7 percent of the EU-28 urban population was exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU’s annual limit value in 2015. Approximately 82 percent were exposed to levels exceeding the stricter World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. Exposure to PM2.5 caused the premature death of estimated 428 000 people in 41 European countries in 2014.
  • Nitrogen dioxide: 9 percent of the EU-28 urban population was exposed to NO2 levels above the EU’s annual limit value and WHO guidelines in 2015. Exposure to NO2 caused the premature death of estimated 78 000 people in 41 European countries in 2014.
  • Ground-level ozone: 30 percent of the EU-28 urban population was exposed to O3 levels above the EU’s target value in 2015. Approximately 95 percent were exposed to levels exceeding the stricter WHO guidelines. Exposure to O3 caused the premature death of estimated 14 400 people in 41 European countries in 2014.
About health estimates

The estimated health impacts in this report are those attributable to exposure to PM2.5, NO2and O3 in Europe in 2014. These estimates are based on information on air pollution, demographic data and the relationship between exposure to pollutant concentrations and specified health outcomes.

Premature deaths are defined as deaths that occur before a person reaches an expected age. This expected age is typically the age of standard life expectancy for a country and gender. Premature deaths are considered to be preventable if their cause can be eliminated.

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