Health impacts of exposure to fine particulate matter in Europe

The EU’s zero pollution action plan aims to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by at least 55% by 2030, from 2005 levels. Between 2005 and 2019, the number of premature deaths in the EU attributed to PM2.5 fell by 33%. If the number of premature deaths continues to fall at this rate, the 55% target will be achieved by 2032 at EU level. In 2019, as in previous years, the highest numbers of deaths per inhabitant were reported in Balkan regions, where solid fuel burning causes high PM2.5 levels, and the lowest numbers in Scandinavian regions, where PM2.5 levels are lower.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease in Europe and is the single largest environmental health risk. The air pollutant deemed to cause the most severe impacts on human health is fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

The European Green Deal calls for the European Commission to revise the EU’s air quality standards to bring them more in line with the latest World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on air quality. In response, the EU’s zero pollution action plan sets the goal of reducing the number of premature deaths caused by PM2.5 by a minimum of 55% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.

The EEA estimates that in 2005, 456,000 premature deaths in the 27 EU Member States (EU-27) were attributable to exposure to PM2.5. Therefore, a 55% reduction would be equivalent to the number of premature deaths falling to 205,000 per year. Between 2005 and 2019, the number of premature deaths attributed to PM2.5 exposure fell by 33% in the EU-27, to 307,000. This decrease can be explained by a decline in the concentrations of PM2.5 and therefore a decrease in the exposure of the population to this pollutant. For instance, annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 decreased on average by 22% in the decade 2009-2018. Moreover, exposure of the urban population to PM2.5 concentrations above the 2005 WHO guideline level of 10 µg/m3 decreased from 97% in 2006 to 61% in 2019. These improvements are the result of national and regional policies that target, for instance, domestic heating, the main source of primary PM2.5, and the implementation of the National Emission Reduction Commitments Directive, which contributed to a decline in the EU’s emissions of PM2.5 by 29 % between 2005 and 2019.

If air quality continues to improve, and the number of premature deaths per year continues to fall at a rate comparable to that of previous years, the zero pollution action plan target of a 55% decline in the number of premature deaths attributed to air pollution will be achieved by 2032. However, continuing to reduce concentrations of PM2.5 at the current rate over the next decade will be challenging. To meet the target, Member States will need to fully implement their national air pollution control programmes and the measures needed to reach their 2030 climate and energy targets.

To allow comparison of the impact of air pollution on human health across the different regions of Europe, the number of premature deaths can be expressed per 100,000 inhabitants. Of the regions for which data are available, the Skopski region, North Macedonia, and Podunavska oblast, Serbia, had most premature deaths in 2019, with 225 and 205 per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. Finnmark in Norway (with 11 premature deaths per 100,000 inhabitants) and Sogn og Fjordane, Nord-Trøndelag and Nordland also in Norway (13 premature deaths per 100,000 inhabitants) have the lowest numbers.

In general, estimates suggest that regions in the Balkans have the highest numbers of premature deaths attributed to PM2.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, especially regions in Bulgaria and Serbia. This is the result of the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and also industry in these regions. In contrast, regions in the Scandinavian peninsula, especially in Norway and Sweden, where PM2.5 concentrations tend to be low, have the lowest numbers of premature deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

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