Air pollution still too high in most EU Member States

News Published 21 Sep 2021 Last modified 09 Feb 2023
3 min read
Photo: © Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
Concentrations of key air pollutants remain too high in most European countries. According to the European Environment Agency’s official data, published today, most European Union (EU) Member States exceed at least one or more of the EU’s legal limits for pollutants in ambient air in 2019.

The EEA briefing Europe’s air quality status 2021’ presents the latest official data for 2019, as well as provisional data for 2020, on concentrations of key air pollutants measured at over 4,500 monitoring stations across 40 European countries.

The EEA data show that air pollution is still a major health risk for Europeans. In central and eastern Europe, the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and industry results in high concentrations of both fine and coarse particulate matter, as well as benzo[a]pyrene, a known carcinogen. Exposure to fine particulate matter causes cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other diseases that lead to premature deaths. In bigger cities, high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide persist due to road traffic, with nitrogen dioxide linked to asthma and breathing problems. And, especially in southern Europe, pollutants emitted from human activities react in heat and sunlight to produce high concentrations of ground-level ozone, linked to cardiovascular disease and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.

Key results:

  • Particulate matter (PM10): 21 countries (of which 16 were EU Member States[1]) registered concentrations above the EU daily limit value in 2019, while 31 countries registered concentrations above the stricter World Health Organization (WHO) guideline from 2005.
  • Fine particulate matter (PM2.5): 7 countries (of which 4 were EU Member States) registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value in 2019, while 28 countries registered concentrations above the 2005 WHO guideline.
  • Ground-level ozone (O3): 24 countries (of which 19 were EU Member States) registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value in 2019, while all countries registered concentrations above the 2005 WHO guideline.
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): 22 countries (of which 18 were EU Member States) registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value in 2019, which is the same as the 2005 WHO guideline.

The EEA’s data show that air quality in Europe improved in 2020, as lockdown measures to control the spread of COVID-19 led to a fall in transport emissions, combined with favorable weather patterns. An EEA analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns on air quality in 2020 is presented in a separate briefing and more extensively in the Air Quality in Europe – 2020 report.


The WHO has established air quality guidelines to protect human health from the impacts of air pollutants. These guidelines are from 2005 and based on the best scientific evidence available at that time. WHO is expected to publish new air quality guidelines on 22 September 2021.

The EU´s Ambient Air Quality Directives set maximum values for a total of 13 air pollutants. Although these values take into account relevant WHO guidelines, they also reflect the technical and economic feasibility of their attainment across EU Member States. For most air pollutants, the EU air quality standards are less strict than the WHO 2005 air quality guidelines.

Other key resources:

[1] The EEA’s assessment of the state of air quality in 2019 and 2020 includes data from the United Kingdom, in agreement with the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, which entered into force on 1 February 2020.


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