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Cleaner air could have saved at least 178,000 lives across the EU in 2019

News Published 15 Nov 2021 Last modified 29 Nov 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Sam Schooler on Unsplash
Air pollution continued to cause a significant burden of premature death and disease in Europe in 2019. A European Environment Agency (EEA) analysis, published today, shows that improving air quality to the levels recently recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) could prevent more than half of the premature deaths caused by exposure to fine particulate matter.

The EEA briefing Health impacts of air pollution in Europe presents updated estimates on how three key pollutants – fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone – affected Europeans’ health in 2019. The briefing also assesses the potential benefits of improving air quality towards new guideline levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). And, the briefing measures progress towards the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan’s target of reducing the number of premature deaths due to exposure to fine particulate matter by more than 55% by 2030.

  • According to the EEA’s latest estimates, 307,000 people died prematurely due to exposure to fine particulate matter pollution in the EU in 2019[1]. At least 58%, or 178,000, of these deaths could have been avoided if all EU Member States had reached the WHO’s new air quality guideline level of 5 µg/m3.
  • Air quality in Europe was better in 2019 than in 2018, which also resulted in fewer negative health impacts. The decline in pollution follows a long-term trend, driven by policies to reduce emissions and improve air quality.
  • As part of the European Green Deal, the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan sets a target to reduce the number of premature deaths due to exposure to fine particulate matter by more than 55% by 2030, as compared to 2005. According to EEA’s analysis, the EU is currently on track to reach the target, as the number of these deaths has decreased by about a third from 2005 to 2019.

“Investing in cleaner heating, mobility, agriculture and industry delivers better health, productivity and quality of life for all Europeans and especially for the most vulnerable. These investments save lives and also help accelerate progress towards carbon neutrality and strong biodiversity”, said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director.

“To breathe clean air should be a fundamental human right. It is a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. Even with improvements in air quality over the past years in our region, we still have a long way to go to achieve the levels in the new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines,” said WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge. “At WHO, we welcome the work done by the EEA, showing us all the lives that could be saved if the new air quality levels were achieved, giving policy-makers solid evidence about the urgent need to tackle this health burden.”

The EEA briefing is published just ahead of the EU Clean Air Forum which will take place on 18 and 19 November 2021. The Forum brings together decision-makers, stakeholders and experts to reflect on the development and implementation of effective European, national and local air policies, projects and programmes – and to inform about the ongoing revision of EU rules, including their closer alignment with the WHO air quality guidelines.

Background

Air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease and is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. Heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of premature deaths attributable to air pollution, followed by lung disease and lung cancer.

The EU´s Ambient Air Quality Directives set standards for key air pollutants. These values take into account 2005 WHO guidelines as well as considerations of technical and economic feasibility at the time of their adoption.

EEA data, published earlier this autumn, showed that air pollution levels remain above the EU legal limits in most European countries.

The WHO has recently established new global air quality guidelines to protect public health. These guidelines are based on a systemic review of the best available scientific evidence on the impacts of air pollution to human health, which shows that air pollution harms human health at even lower concentrations than previously understood.

EU air quality standards are a key policy tool and the closer alignment of these standards with WHO recommendations would represent an important step towards cleaner air for Europe, in combination with improved policies to reduce pollution at source.

The EEA assessment of potential benefits assumes a scenario in which all areas in the EU-27 that in 2019 were above the WHO air quality guideline for fine particulate matter would instead have reached the guideline, while all other areas would have maintained the measured 2019 concentrations. This scenario and the corresponding estimates therefore represent the minimum potential benefits resulting from improvements in air quality, with reductions in premature deaths also likely to occur in areas where the guideline was already achieved but which would also likely benefit from cleaner air in the surrounding areas.

The EEA analysis of 2019 health impacts was made using the concentration-response functions recommended by WHO in 2013 to keep in line with previous years’ estimates made by EEA. However, starting next year, the EEA expects to fully align its analysis with the new WHO global air quality guidelines.

Key resources

European Air Quality Index shows near real-time air quality data for Europe, allowing users to check local air quality where they live or travel.

European city air quality viewer compares average levels of fine particulate matter in 323 European cities, over the past two calendar years.

National air pollutant emissions data viewer gives access to the latest air pollutant emission data, reported by EU Member States under the National Emission reduction Commitments (NEC) Directive.

Air pollution data center gives access to all relevant EEA data on air pollution in Europe

Air pollution: how it affects our health shows how exposure to fine particulate matter contributes to disease and premature death in Europe and how this burden is distributed across European society.

NEW - The European Air Quality Index is now available as a mobile app:


[1] Contrary to previous EEA assessments, this figure does not include the United Kingdom.

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