Many Europeans still exposed to harmful air pollution

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Press Release Published 24 Nov 2015 Last modified 03 Jun 2016, 05:02 PM
Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. It shortens people’s lifespan and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. A new report published today by the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that air pollution continues to be responsible for more than 430 000 premature deaths in Europe.

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Despite continuous improvements in recent decades, air pollution is still affecting the general health of Europeans, reducing their quality of life and life expectancy.

EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx

The EEA report 'Air quality in Europe — 2015 report' examines the European population’s exposure to air pollutants and provides a snapshot of air quality based on data from official monitoring stations across Europe. It shows that most city dwellers continue to be exposed to air pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The most problematic pollutants affecting human health are particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Health impact estimates associated with long-term exposure to PM2.5 show that this pollutant was responsible for 432 000 premature deaths in Europe in 2012, a level similar to that estimated in previous years. The estimated impacts of NO2 and O3 exposure were around 75 000 and 17 000 premature deaths respectively. The report also provides estimates of premature deaths at country level.

‘Despite continuous improvements in recent decades, air pollution is still affecting the general health of Europeans, reducing their quality of life and life expectancy,’ said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx. ‘It also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through working days lost across the economy.’

Alongside health, air pollutants also have a significant harmful impact on plant life and ecosystems. These problems, including eutrophication caused by ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), as well as damage caused by O3 to plants, are still widespread across Europe. 

Other key findings

  • Particulate matter can cause or aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases, heart attacks and arrhythmias. It can also cause cancer. In 2013, 87% of the urban population in the EU were exposed to PM2.5 concentrations that exceeded the WHO value set to protect human health. The air quality standard in the EU is less strict and only 9% were exposed to PM2.5 above the EU target value. The benefits of improving Europe’s air quality are clear – meeting the WHO air quality standard throughout the EU‑28 would lead to average PM2.5 concentrations dropping by about one-third, resulting in 144 000 fewer premature deaths compared with the current situation. PM2.5 refers to particles with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less. Small particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs.
  • Ozone exposure in cities remains very high – 98% of the EU-28 urban population were exposed to O3 concentrations above the WHO guideline value in 2013. Some 15% were exposed to concentrations above the (less strict) EU target value for O3. Ozone concentrations also damage agricultural crops, forests and plants by reducing their growth rates and yields. The long-term objective for the protection of vegetation from O3 was exceeded in 86% of the total EU-28 agricultural area.
  • Nitrogen dioxide affects the respiratory system directly, but also contributes to the formation of PM and O3. In 2013, 9% of the urban population in the EU-28 were exposed to NO2 concentrations above the WHO and identical EU standards, with 93% of all exceedances occurring close to roads.
  • Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is an organic pollutant that is carcinogenic. Typically formed as a result of wood burning, exposure to BaP pollution is widespread, in particular in central and eastern Europe. A quarter of the EU-28 urban population were exposed to BaP concentrations above the target value in 2013, and as much as 91% were exposed to BaP concentrations above the estimated reference level based on WHO risk figures.
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions have been reduced significantly over past decades as a result of EU legislation requiring the use of emissions scrubbing technology and lower sulphur content in fuels. There were only a few exceedances of the SO2 EU limit value in 2013.
  • Carbon monoxide, benzene and heavy metal (arsenic, cadmium, nickel and lead) concentrations in outdoor air were generally low in the EU in 2013, with few exceedances of the respective limit and target values set by EU legislation. 

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Exposure of ecosystems to acidification, eutrophication and ozone Exposure of ecosystems to acidification, eutrophication and ozone In the EU-28 countries, the ecosystem area where acidification critical loads were exceeded decreased from 43% in 1980 to 7% in 2010 (it also decreased by 7% across all EEA member countries). There remain some areas where the EU's interim objective for reducing acidification, as defined in the National Emission Ceilings Directive, has not been met.  The EU28 ecosystem area, where the critical loads for eutrophication were exceeded, peaked at 84% in 1990 and decreased to 63% in 2010 (55% in EEA member countries). The area in exceedance is projected to further decrease to 54% in 2020 for the EU28 (48% in EEA member countries), assuming current legislation is implemented. The magnitude of the exceedances is projected to reduce considerably in most areas, except for a few 'hot spot' areas in western France and the border areas between the Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands as well as in northern Italy. Only 4% of the EU-28 ecosystem area (3% in EEA member countries) is still projected to be in exceedance of acidification critical loads in 2020 if current legislation is fully implemented. The eutrophication reduction target set in the updated EU air pollution strategy proposed by the European Commission in late 2013, will be met by 2030 if it is assumed that all maximum technically feasible reduction measures are implemented, but it will not be met by current legislation. Most of Europe's vegetation and agricultural crops are exposed to ozone levels that exceed the long term objective specified in the EU Air Quality Directive. A significant fraction is also exposed to levels above the target value threshold defined in the directive. In 2012, the agricultural area exposed to concentrations above the target value threshold increased to 27% of the total area, representing an increase compared to the previous three years. With regard to forest ozone exposure, between 2004 and 2012, 60% or more of the forest area was exposed to concentrations above the critical level set by the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100