Traditionally, human health has been regarded as a matter of progress in vaccination and the treatment of diseases. Increasingly, however, studies have shown that the influence of pollutants and harmful substances, particularly on non-communicable diseases, is becoming more significant. In fact, air pollution remains one of the greatest environmental health hazards in Europe.
Air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ammonia and ozone damage our lungs. Particulate matter can lead to secondary diseases as well as severe reactions to COVID-19 and other pulmonary infections. As well as accelerated ageing and loss of lung capacity, pulmonary immune responses are impaired by pollutants, increasing the risk of infection from viruses and bacteria.
Secondary disorders such as asthma, heart disease, and a higher risk of several types of cancer are well-documented impacts of pollutants. Even issues affecting brain development can be linked to prenatal exposure to certain pollutants. While the suffering of people can hardly be monetised, the cost of air pollution can be estimated based on the cost to health systems and lost life years.
The European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law estimates that in 2018, on average, every inhabitant of a European city incurred a welfare loss of over €1250, as a result of direct and indirect health losses associated with poor air quality. This is equivalent to 3.9 percent of the average income of a person living in a city.
Thanks to limit values enshrined in European law, the concentration of air pollutants in Europe is falling. For example, pollution from nitrogen oxides has fallen sharply, preventing 30,000 premature deaths. This is equivalent to the number of people dying in road accidents in Europe every year. Air quality in the EU is monitored closely, and major regional differences are clearly visible, for example on a map created by the European Environmental Agency (EEA).
While immediate health problems such as acute dyspnoea from polluted air have fortunately now become less common in the EU, a worryingly high percentage of Europe’s urban population in some Member States remain exposed to concentrations above current EU limits. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) regularly convicts EU Member States for non-compliance with limit values on air pollutants.
Only recently, the ECJ ruled against Hungary for systematically and continuously exceeding daily limit values of PM10 particulate matter. However, this ruling came 12 years after the infringement procedure was initiated by the European Commission. Far too many EU Member States remain inactive, despite excessive pollution levels, and continue to fail to implement existing EU law. We need much faster procedures and stricter penalties for non-compliance.
“The health of citizens must no longer remain a secondary concern. Carcinogens in the air and in food are responsible for a significant proportion of cancer cases, and the cost of prevention is often only a fraction that of the subsequent treatment costs”
Likewise, sufficient resources for the European Commission must be ensured so that it can fully exercise its role as guardian of the Treaties. Air pollution harms not only our health but also the environment. Pollution is one of the main causes of biodiversity loss, as it reduces the ability of ecosystems to provide services such as carbon sequestration and water purification. As a result, environmental, climate and health policies are closely interlinked. All three areas are affected by the consequences of burning fossil fuels.
In this context, the Zero Pollution Action Plan must also consider our environmental and climate challenges. Recently, the EEA recommended bringing together policies that address air quality along with those to mitigate greenhouse gases. The switch to renewable energy sources and the increased use of e-mobility in the transport sector reduces not only greenhouse gas emissions but also pollution from nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulphur oxides and fine dust.
While sustainable agriculture with less fertiliser use and reduced factory farming could also lead to much lower emissions of ammonia. Therefore, it was good news when Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius announced that the Zero Pollution Action Plan will be presented this spring, and that the existing EU law on air quality will be updated in 2022. Adaptations are urgently needed, because the current limit values do not reflect the up-to-date recommendations of the World Health Organization.
Moreover, in its Beating Cancer Plan, the Commission has announced new limits and laws to fight and prevent cancer. Last year, 2.7 million Europeans were diagnosed with cancer and 1.3 million lost their lives to this terrible, and often preventable, disease. The health of citizens must no longer remain a secondary concern.
Carcinogens in the air and in food are responsible for a significant proportion of cancer cases, and the cost of prevention is often only a fraction that of the subsequent treatment costs - not to mention the human suffering. It is not enough to simply spend billions on developing new drugs and treatments; we must tackle the root of the problem.