Very high air pollution levels across Western Europe

News Published 14 Mar 2014 Last modified 20 Feb 2017
2 min read
Photo: © Björn Buhay
High pollutant levels currently experienced in parts of France, Belgium and Germany are leading some areas to take urgent action to lower air pollution – for example, public transport is free in Paris over the weekend as an incentive for people to avoid car use.

Current concentrations of particulate matter (PM10) are unusually high across a wide region of Western Europe. Since Wednesday almost three quarters of France has experienced PM10 concentrations above the limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (daily mean), with some areas recording more than double that level. Check the EEA’s near-real time air pollution map.

The main factor behind the current air pollution episode has been the stable and calm weather over the past days, which prevents certain types of air pollution from dispersing. The pollutants are emitted by a variety of sources, including road traffic, wood-burning stoves, and at this time of year the application of agricultural fertilisers. The current episode is particularly high, however – in France, the last major pollution episode of this kind was in spring 2007. 

Urgent action

Yesterday evening the French Ministry of Ecology announced a series of actions to reduce short-term pollution levels including free public transport in the Paris area until Sunday in order to limit traffic emissions. The Ministry has also reduced traffic speed limits in certain areas, introduced controls on fertiliser spreading and advised against use of wood-burning fireplaces (except for main heating) and burning of green waste.

Others including the Belgian authorities are also promoting similar measures – for example reducing the speed limit in the most affected areas. Belgium and France have some of the highest ownership rates of diesel cars in Europe, and diesel vehicles emit higher quantities of PM10 than their petrol equivalents.

Health impacts of PM10 air pollution

Particulate matter pollution can cause or aggravate existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and long-term exposure can contribute to heart attacks and arrhythmias, nerve problems and premature death in some cases. During the current episode vulnerable people living in affected areas are recommended to avoid strenuous physical activity.

How does it compare to the rest of the world?

While the current levels in Europe pose a significant risk to health, peak levels can be up to 4-5 times higher in Asian cities like Beijing. 

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