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Air pollution has negative impacts on human health and the environment, and industry is one of the main contributors to air pollution in Europe. How do we estimate the costs of industrial air pollution on society? What do the numbers tell us? We asked these questions to Martin Adams, who leads the group working on air pollution, transport and noise at the European Environment Agency.
"The positive news is that over the last decades, the situation has improved substantially in terms of exposure to several air pollutants. But these pollutants, where we achieved the most significant reductions are not the ones causing most harm to human health and the environment" says Valentin Foltescu, who works on air quality assessment and data reporting at the EEA. We asked Valentin what the EEA does on air quality and what the latest data says.
We breathe from the moment we are born until the moment we die. It is a vital and constant need, not only for us but for all life on Earth. Poor air quality affects us all: it harms our health and the health of the environment, which leads to economic losses. But what does the air we breathe consist of and where do the various air pollutants come from?
Martin Fitzpatrick is a Principal Environmental Health Officer in the air quality monitoring and noise unit of Dublin City Council, Ireland. He is also the Dublin contact point for a pilot project run by the European Commission DG Environment and the EEA aimed at improving the implementation of air legislation. We asked him how Dublin tackles the health problems linked to poor air quality.
Our knowledge and understanding of air pollution is growing every year. We have an expanding network of monitoring stations reporting data on a wide range of air pollutants, complemented with results from air quality models. We now have to make sure that scientific knowledge and policy continue to develop hand in hand.
Air pollution is not the same everywhere. Different pollutants are released into the atmosphere from a wide range of sources. Once in the atmosphere, they can transform into new pollutants and spread around the world. Designing and implementing policies to address this complexity are not easy tasks. Below is an overview of air legislation in the European Union.
Many of us might spend up to 90 % of our day indoors — at home, work or school. The quality of the air we breathe indoors also has a direct impact on our health. What determines indoor air quality? Is there any difference between outdoor and indoor air pollutants? How can we improve indoor air quality?
The chemistry of our atmosphere is complex. The atmosphere contains layers with different densities and different chemical compositions. We asked Professor David Fowler from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology of the Natural Environment Research Council in the United Kingdom, about the air pollutants and chemical processes in our atmosphere that impact our health and the environment.
‘African dust’ from the Sahara is one of the natural sources of particulate matter in the air. Extremely dry and hot conditions in the Sahara create turbulence, which can propel dust upwards to a height of 4–5 km. Particles can stay at these heights for weeks or months, and are often blown across Europe.
Our climate is changing. Many climate-changing gases are also common air pollutants that affect our health and the environment. In many ways, improving air quality can also give a boost to climate change mitigation efforts and vice versa, but not always. The challenge ahead is to ensure that climate and air policies focus on win-win scenarios.
Europe has improved its air quality in recent decades. Emissions of many pollutants were curbed successfully, but particulate matter and ozone pollution in particular continue to pose serious risks to the health of Europeans.
The atmosphere, weather patterns and seasonal variations have long been an object of fascination and observation. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle’s treatise Meteorology compiled the great philosopher’s observations not only on the weather patterns, but on earth sciences in general. Until the 17th century, air symbolised ‘nothingness’. It was assumed that air had no weight until Galileo Galilei scientifically proved that it has.
Lower speed limits on motorways are generally associated with road safety. But several European countries are now debating whether they also benefit the environment and, if so, how much. There is no simple way of measuring the environmental benefits of lower speed limits but several factors clearly play a key role.
Every winter the gates of Copenhagen's famous Tivoli Gardens, an old-world amusement park in the city centre, open to officially mark the beginning of the extended Christmas period. This December the twinkling lights of Tivoli will most likely be outshone by COP 15 — the most important global climate change meeting ever — as thousands of diplomats, politicians, business people, environmentalists, media and climate experts from around the globe flock to the Danish capital.
* The characters in this story are fictional. However the data are real. The story is set on 27 July 2008 when an air quality warning was issued in Brussels.
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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