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 artificial light. The EU is taking action to reduce pollution and the threats harmful substances pose to Europe’s environment and human health.

Pollution can come in many forms and from many sources. Once released, many pollutants remain in nature and tend to accumulate. Some sources are widespread, like transport and agriculture, whereas others are linked to a specific place, like a factory or power plant. Chemicals, dust, noise and radiation are pollutants that can alter air, water and soil in a way that makes them harmful to our health and environment.

In recent decades, thanks to legislation, there has been significant progress toward reducing the amount of pollutants released to nature in Europe.

  • The number of Europeans dying prematurely due to poor air quality is less than half of early 1990s levels.
  • Europe’s industry is becoming cleaner with fewer emissions to air and water.
  • A wider uptake of electric cars and more extensive public transport systems contribute to cleaner air, especially in cities.
  • Advanced wastewater treatment covers more and more communities. We can enjoy fishing and swimming in many rivers, lakes and coastal areas.
  • Agricultural practices are focusing on fertiliser and pesticide use aimed at minimising the risk of contaminating water and soil.

Yet, many of Europe's water bodies continue to be impacted by contamination. Different pollutants like mercury or microplastics continue to accumulate. Europe’s soils still suffer from the pollution that was released decades or centuries ago. Millions continue to be exposed to harmful levels of noise pollution. Pollution exposure in Europe is often linked to social inequalities and income levels, with poorer communities and households more likely to be exposed to pollution and suffer from its health effects.

Despite real improvements, data on existing pollution levels indicate that we can and should do much more. This will require better implementation of existing policies and targets as well as a comprehensive approach. The EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan aims to do that.

Despite progress, several sectors continue to pollute our air, water, and soil.

  • Transport is responsible for around 45% of Europe's nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and a significant proportion of the total emissions of other key pollutants.
  • Road traffic is the most widespread source of environmental noise, with many people affected by harmful levels in Europe.
  • Energy production and distribution are the primary sources of sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions and a significant source of NOx emissions.
  • The agricultural sector is responsible for 90% of Europe's ammonia emissions and almost 20% of emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), such as benzene and ethanol.
  • Domestic heating is a significant source of air pollution. Commercial, institutional and residential buildings account for 53% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions.
  • Microplastics can be released directly into the environment or can result from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic.
  • Between 2010 and 2021, industrial releases to Europe’s water bodies of pollutants that damage human health and the environment declined overall. Releases of heavy metals declined significantly, while emissions of nitrogen, which cause eutrophication, declined to a lesser extent.

The EU’s zero-pollution ambition for Europe was announced in the European Green Deal. The Zero-Pollution Action Plan translates this ambition into concrete policy targets. The plan sets targets to reduce pollution linked to activities, including agriculture. It helps boost cleaner products and technologies across all relevant economic sectors, prioritising pollution prevention over remediation.

Other key pollution-related EU policy packages include:

  • The EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives set air quality standards for 12 air pollutants. These directives also define common methods to monitor, assess and inform the public on ambient air quality in the EU.
  • The Water Framework Directive sets our rules to halt deterioration in the status of EU water bodies and achieve good status for Europe’s rivers, lakes and groundwater.
  • The Circular Economy Action Plan aims to transition the European economy from a linear to a circular model with less waste.
  • The Farm to Fork Strategy aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. A new common agricultural policy will be key to securing the future of agriculture and forestry, as well as achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal.
  • The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability aims to protect citizens and the environment from harmful chemicals and boost innovation by promoting safer and more sustainable chemicals.
  • The Environmental Noise Directive provides the primary legislative framework for achieving noise reduction in Europe.

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.
Picture of microbial cancer cells shown as purplish oval figures with a blue circle inside them in a black setting.
Picture of a container terminal at a port during dusk with a few small boats in the forefront in still water.

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.

Picture of a green hillside with a large green-red tree and a man standing at a gate on the right, while a large grey smoking funnel is visible on the right in a grey hillside background.
Picture taken from a distance of a yellow bulldozer in the centre moving from left to right and mowing an orange field.

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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