Air pollution: how it affects our health

Most Europeans live in areas, especially cities, where air pollution can reach high levels. Both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to a wide range of diseases (e.g. cardiovascular diseases and reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma). The World Health Organization (WHO) provides evidence of links between exposure to air pollution and type 2 diabetes, obesity, systemic inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified air pollution, in particular PM2.5, as a leading cause of cancer. A recent global review found that chronic exposure can affect every organ in the body, complicating and exacerbating existing health conditions.

Health impacts of air pollution

Health impacts of air pollution

Note: Particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less (PM2.5), particulate matter with a diameter of 10 µm or less (PM10), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

Source: EEA, "Healthy environment, healthy lives ," 2019

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is the air pollutant driving the most significant health problems and premature mortality. Between 2009 and 2018, there has been an average reduction of 22 % in annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 measured at air quality monitoring stations across Europe. Despite these improvements to the air quality in Europe, PM concentrations still exceed EU limit values and, in large parts of Europe, WHO air quality guidelines

379 000 
premature deaths in 2018

The EEA estimates that, in 2018, approximately 379 000 premature deaths were attributable to PM2.5 in the 27 EU Member States and the United Kingdom. The number of premature deaths has more than halved since 1990.


Premature deaths due to exposure to PM2.5

Premature deaths (1).png

Additional key facts:

  • According to the latest EEA report on air quality in Europe, the WHO Air Quality Guideline for PM2.5 annual mean (10 μg/m3) was exceeded at 70 % of the monitoring stations across Europe. 
  • In 2018, the EEA estimates that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was linked to 54 000 premature deaths, and ground-level ozone was linked to 19 400 premature deaths across the 27 EU Member States and the United Kingdom. 
  • Compared to 2009, the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution in 2018 decreased by 13 % for PM2.5 and by 54 % by NO2, but increased by 24 % for ozone (for EU27 and the UK), according to EEA. 
  • According to WHO, ischaemic heart disease attributable to air pollution caused over 112 000 deaths in the EU-27 and the United Kingdom in 2016. 
  • Other significant diseases attributed to air pollution and leading to deaths, identified by WHO, include stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, trachea, bronchus and lung cancers, and lower respiratory infections. 

Inequalities in exposure and vulnerability to air pollution in Europe

Air pollution affects people in different ways. Older people, children and those with pre-existing health conditions are more sensitive to the health impacts of air pollution. In addition, the most deprived people in society often have poorer health and less access to high-quality medical care, increasing their vulnerability. 

There is strong evidence linking lower socio-economic status to increased exposure to air pollution. In large parts of Europe, poorer people are more likely to live next to busy roads or industrial areas and thus, face higher levels of exposure to air pollution. At the same time, exposure patterns vary across European cities. In some cities, wealthier people live in central, polluted areas, while in other European cities central areas are inhabited by poorer communities. 

In Europe, regions characterised by lower GDP per capita are found to have higher levels of PM2.5 and tend to occur in Eastern and South-eastern Europe. This pattern is largely driven by the combustion of low-quality solid fuels (e.g. coal and wood) in low-efficiency ovens for domestic heating in those areas. The higher population exposure to PM2.5 in particular regions, translates into higher numbers of premature deaths attributed to air pollution. 

Mapping mortality attributed to PM2.5 against regional wealth in Europe

The interactive map viewer shows the spatial distribution of population-weighted concentrations of PM2.5 (as an indication of population exposure) across Europe and the associated mortality. The viewer also allows to display data against GDP per capita as a proxy for the average socio-economic characteristics of the population in each region. The data is presented for NUTS3 regions (between 150 000 and 800 000 inhabitants).

Tips for using the interactive map viewer

GDP per capita - Eurostat; Premature deaths, years of life lost and population-weighted concentrations are based on an EEA analysis of interpolated annual statistics of reported monitoring data from 2018 (see Map 9.1 in EEA, 2020) and the Geostat 2011 population grid data set.


Further information:

Explore the EEA data on air pollution

How is the COVID-19 pandemic linked to air pollution?

The temporary reduction in human activities resulted in lower emissions of some air pollutants. Air quality data reported to the EEA shows that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport —decreased in April 2020 in many European cities, where lockdown measures had been implemented (with large variations among and within cities), relative to business-as-usual scenario. The largest fall in NO2 concentrations (around 70 %) was seen at traffic air monitoring stations in Spain and Italy. The ongoing fluctuations in NO2 concentrations can be found in our data viewer and in the recent EEA article on COVID-19 and the environment.

PM10 concentrations also tended to be lower in April 2020 compared to business-as-usual scenario. The greatest relative reductions (35 – 40 %) were estimated at traffic stations in Spain and Italy, whilst limited number of sites (mainly rural background stations) recorded increase in PM10 concentrations. The smaller reduction in PM10 concentrations compared to NO2 is due to the PM concentrations being influenced by both primary emissions from anthropogenic and natural sources and by precursor gases emitted from different sources, which can subsequently form PM in the atmosphere. 

There are two other relationships between air pollution and COVID-19: the possible effect of air pollution on vulnerability and susceptibility to COVID-19 (via previous long-term exposure to air pollutants), and the possible role of air pollution in spreading the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Some very recent studies, some produced in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, have explored those links but they need to be interpreted with care and further research is needed.


Cover image: © Jean-Jacques Poirault, ImaginAIR /EEA


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