Concentrations of air pollutants constant despite drop in emissions

News Published 30 Apr 2008 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
2 min read
Concentrations of ozone and particulate matter, two harmful airborne pollutants, have not improved since 1997 despite substantial cuts in emissions of air pollutants across Europe, says a new EEA report, released today.

The report, Air pollution in Europe, analyses air pollutant emissions and their possible health and ecosystem impacts in Europe between 1990–2004.

Man-made emissions of all air pollutants fell substantially in the 32 EEA member countries the report says. This was mainly due to the effectiveness of EU policies limiting air pollution from the power/heat generation sector, industry and from road transport. However, measured concentrations of particulate matter (PM) and ozone, have not generally shown any improvement since 1997.

Particulate matter

Particulate matter is an umbrella term for a 'basket' of potentially harmful chemical components that form particles in the air including: organic chemicals, acid aerosols, trace metals, sea salts and windborne soil dust. Because of their small size the particles are easily inhaled by humans and have a damaging effect on health.

Exposure to PM can shorten life expectancy and increase the numbers of premature deaths, hospital admissions and emergency room visits (e.g. respiratory diseases, increased risk of heart attack). Fine particulate matter, with a diameter size below 2.5 micrometer (PM2.5), is now generally recognised to be the main threat to human health from air pollution.


Ozone (O3) is formed in the ground-level atmosphere by reaction between NOX and volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight. Ozone pollution is thus a major concern during the summer months. If inhaled by humans, ozone can be harmful to the upper respiratory tract and the lungs.

Possible causes of high PM and ozone levels

High PM and ozone levels in the air, as observed in 2003, can also partly be explained by weather conditions, the report says. Reduced precipitation, high springtime temperatures and stable atmospheric conditions (all conditions which occurred in 2003) lead to higher pollutant concentrations in the air.

Other causes of this phenomenon could include additional pollution coming from natural sources and pollution transported from countries outside Europe, the report says.

Key points of the report

  • Estimates indicate that up to 43 % of the European urban population were exposed to PM10 concentrations in excess of the EU air quality limit value between 1990–2004. The worst affected areas were Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as in the Po Valley in Italy and southern Spain.
  • Up to 60 % of the European urban population was exposed to ozone concentrations in excess of the EU air quality limit values between 1990–2004. Exposure of crops and forests to ozone exceeded limit/critical values over very large areas of central and southern Europe.
  • Human exposure to certain other potentially harmful air pollutants, sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and lead, has decreased markedly due to effective European air quality policies. This is particularly true with policies reducing emissions of SO2 from power and heat generation as well as CO and lead emissions from passenger cars.


EEA report No 2/2007: Air pollution in Europe 1990–2004



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