Poor air quality causes over 400,000 premature deaths in EU each year

A new report has revealed that exposure to fine particulate matter caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

30 Nov 2020

The report, compiled by the European Environment Agency (EEA), is based on the latest air quality data from 4,000 monitoring stations in Europe in 2018.

Despite the sobering figures, it says that the annual death toll is on the decline, with around 60,000 fewer people dying prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018 compared with 2009.

It says there was also a reduction of up to 60 percent of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

But it also notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases which both have been identified as risk factors for death in COVID-19 patients.

Nevertheless, the EEA points out that links between air pollution and the severity of the COVID-19 infections is “not clear” and further epidemiological research is needed.

The report notes that much still needs to be done to tackle the issue and only four European countries currently meet the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidelines on air quality.

“The EEA’s data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans” Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

Generally, there is still a “gap” between EU's legal air quality limits and WHO guidelines.

The report shows that six Member States exceeded the EU’s limit value for “fine particulate matter” in 2018 - Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland and Romania – and only Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland were below WHO guidelines.

The European Commission says it is trying to address such issues with a revision of the EU standards under the “Zero Pollution Action Plan” which is part of the European Green Deal.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said, “It is good news that air quality is improving thanks to the environmental and climate policies that we have been implementing.”

The official added, “But we can't ignore the downside – the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high. With the European Green Deal we have set ourselves an ambition of reducing all kinds of pollution to zero.”

“If we are to succeed and fully protect people's health and the environment, we need to cut air pollution further and align our air quality standards more closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We will look at this in our upcoming Action Plan.”

“If we are to succeed and fully protect people's health and the environment, we need to cut air pollution further and align our air quality standards more closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We will look at this in our upcoming Action Plan” Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries

Further comment came from Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, who said, “The EEA's data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. Policies and actions that are consistent with Europe's zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies.”

The agency says that the impact of exposure to air pollution are diverse, ranging from inflammation of the lungs to premature deaths.

The EEA report said that in 2018, 34 percent of urban inhabitants of the 27 EU countries and the UK were breathing ground-level ozone particles at concentrations above EU health target levels and that 15 percent were breathing so-called PM10 particles, particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less, at levels above the EU daily limit.

In the EU and the UK, 54,000 premature deaths were linked to nitrogen dioxide in 2018, less than half the figure from 2009.

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere by motorised vehicles and industrial processes. It creates fine particles that are breathed in and have been found to increase the chance of lung and heart conditions.

Meanwhile, the Brussels Capital region is planning to launch a major air quality project next year that will see 3,000 households measuring pollution levels in their streets. The health of some 200 schoolchildren will also be monitored.

The region is working with a number of organisations and institutes on the project, including the citizens’ action group Bral, to install 3,000 sensors on homes across the region. The sensors will measure the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

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