Pollution can harm human health and the environment. It can be pollutants found in air, water and soil. It can also be harmful noise or light. The EU is taking action to reduce pollution and the threats harmful substances pose to Europe’s environment and human health.

Zero pollution monitoring assessment: a baseline analysis of progress towards a zero pollution Europe

Preventing cancer cases by...

Cancer impacts the lives of many Europeans, with nearly 2.7 million new patients diagnosed and 1.3 million deaths each year in the EU-27 (Dyba et al., 2021). Although Europe represents less than 10% of the world’s population, it reports almost 23% of new cancer cases and 20% of the cancer deaths worldwide.

Our report provides a brief overview of the evidence on the environmental and occupational determinants of cancer in Europe and of EU policy responses. According to our report:

  • Exposure to air pollution, carcinogenic chemicals, radon, UV radiation and second-hand smoke together may contribute over 10% of the cancer burden in Europe.
  • Environmental and occupational cancer risks can be reduced by cleaning up pollution and changing behaviours: decreasing these risks will lead to a fall in the numbers of cancer cases and deaths.

Tackling water pollution

EU policy to reduce water pollution has been in place for nearly five decades. But while there has been progress, only 38% of EU surface water bodies were in good chemical status as of 2018.

Most chemical pollution in surface water stems from three groups of substances:

  • Mercury and its compounds;
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs);
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (pBDEs).

Also, diffuse pollutants like nitrates from agriculture affect the ecological status of water. For example, excessive nutrients lead to eutrophication.

What are the main air pollutants?

Particulate matter (PM) is emitted from many sources and is one of the most harmful pollutants to human health. It penetrates sensitive regions of the respiratory system and can cause or aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases and cancers.

Ground-level ozone (O3) is an air pollutant that affects human health, vegetation and materials. Ozone is formed when other pollutants react with sunlight.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx) are emitted from fuel combustion, such as power plants and other industrial facilities. They contribute to the acidification and eutrophication of waters and soils. In the air, they can cause health problems, such as airway inflammation and reduced lung function.

Organic pollutants, such as Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), are emitted from fuel and waste combustion, industrial processes and solvent use. Substances such as hexachlorobenzene (HCB), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can have a range of harmful effects on human health and ecosystems.

Heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, are toxic to ecosystems. They are mainly emitted from combustion processes and industrial activities. As well as polluting the air, they can build up in soils and sediments and accumulate in food chains.

Ammonia (NH3) is emitted mainly from agriculture and contributes to the eutrophication and acidification of waters and soils.

Land and soil pollution: a growing problem

Excessive use of mineral fertilisers can contaminate soil and affect the way soil ecosystems function. Through soil erosion or flooding, pollutants can enter water streams, leach into groundwater, and spread further to affect drinking water and nature. Waste management practices — such as landfilling or spreading waste water on land — can also introduce contaminants to the soil. Air pollutants also end up being deposited on land and soil.

In Europe, pollution from industry is regulated by EU legislation and has been declining significantly. Despite this, industrial facilities also release some of their pollutant emissions to land. Information on how much and what pollutants each facility releases are made public through the European Industrial Emissions Portal.

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