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Air pollution still harming health across Europe

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Around 90 % of city dwellers in the European Union (EU) are exposed to one of the most damaging air pollutants at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This result comes from the latest assessment of air quality in Europe, published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

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Large parts of the population do not live in a healthy environment, according to current standards. To get on to a sustainable path, Europe will have to be ambitious and go beyond current legislation.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

The report, 'Air quality in Europe – 2013 report', is an EEA contribution to the European Commission's review of air quality policy and the EU 'Year of Air'.

Vehicles, industry, agriculture and homes are contributing to air pollution in Europe. Despite falling emission levels and reductions of some air pollutant concentrations in recent decades, the report demonstrates that Europe's air pollution problem is far from solved. Two specific pollutants, particulate matter and ground-level ozone, continue to be a source breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives. New scientific findings show that human health can be harmed by lower concentrations of air pollution than previously thought.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “Air pollution is causing damage to human health and ecosystems. Large parts of the population do not live in a healthy environment, according to current standards. To get on to a sustainable path, Europe will have to be ambitious and go beyond current legislation.”

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik added: “Air quality is a central concern for many people. Surveys show that a large majority of citizens understand well the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels, even in times of austerity and hardship. I am ready to respond to these concerns through the Commission's upcoming Air Policy Review.”

Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96 % of city dwellers were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations above WHO guidelines and up to 98 % were exposed to ozone (O3) levels above WHO guidelines. Lower proportions of EU citizens were exposed to levels of these pollutants exceeding the limits or targets set out in EU legislation. These EU limits or targets are in certain cases less strict than WHO guidelines. See EEA data on EU exposure in 2011.

It is not just cities - some rural areas also have significant levels of air pollution, the report notes. National differences across Europe are presented in a series of country fact-sheets accompanying the main findings.

There have been several success stories in cutting emissions of air pollutants – for example sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants, industry and transport have been reduced over the last decade, reducing exposure. Phasing out leaded petrol has also reduced concentrations of lead, found to affect neurological development.

Eutrophication

Alongside health concerns, the report also highlights environmental problems such as eutrophication, which is when excessive nutrient nitrogen damages ecosystems, threatening biodiversity. Eutrophication is still a widespread problem that affects most European ecosystems.

Emissions of some nitrogen-containing pollutants have decreased, for example emissions of nitrogen oxides and ammonia have fallen by 27 % and 7 % respectively since 2002. However, emissions were not reduced as much as anticipated, with eight EU Member States breaching legal ceilings a year after the deadline for compliance. To address eutrophication, further measures are needed to reduce emissions of nitrogen.

Presentation about the report Air quality in Europe

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100