THIS ARTICLE/PRESS RELEASE IS PAID FOR AND PRESENTED BY NILU - Norwegian Institute for Air Research - read more

Although lockdown measures during the pandemic reduced emissions of air pollutants, the majority of Europe's urban population is exposed to harmful air pollution.

96 per cent of Europe’s urban population is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution

They are exposed to fine particulate matter above the newest health-based guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO)

Despite a noticeable drop in air pollution from road transport in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, breaches of European air quality standards remain a common occurrence across the European Union (EU), according to the EEA briefing Europe’s air quality status 2022.

Health impacts of air pollution

Despite ongoing overall improvements in air quality, air pollution is still a major health concern for Europeans. Exposure to fine particulate matter causes cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other diseases that lead to premature deaths. In some bigger cities, high concentrations of NO2 persist due to road traffic, with NO2 linked to asthma and breathing problems. Later this year, EEA will publish its official estimate of the impact of air pollution on human health in 2020.

Under the European Green Deal’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission identified a number of actions to help address Europe’s air quality. This includes a revision of the ambient air quality directives, aiming, among other things, to align the EU air quality standards more closely with WHO recommendations.

The EEA briefing presents the latest official data for 2020, plus provisional data for 2021, on concentrations of key air pollutants measured at more than 4,500 monitoring stations across 37 European countries. The analysis focuses on those pollutants most harmful to human health, including particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) ozone (O3) and benzo[a]pyrene, and assesses concentrations against EU air quality standards and WHO air quality guidelines.

Particulate matter remains a challenge

Despite reductions in emissions, in 2020 most of the EU’s urban population was exposed to levels of key air pollutants that are damaging to health. Critically for health, 96 per cent of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3.

In contrast, less than 1 per cent of the urban population was exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 25 µg/m3, highlighting the discrepancy between current EU policy objectives and the scientific evidence on when health effects occur.

Central-eastern Europe and Italy reported the highest concentrations of particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene (a carcinogen), due primarily to the burning of solid fuels, like coal and wood, for domestic heating and the use of fossil fuels in industrial production.

Pandemic impact on air quality

Data shows that lockdown measures introduced in 2020 to stop or minimise the spread of COVID-19 led to reduced activity in the road transport, aviation and international shipping sectors, which in turn led to falls in emissions of air pollutants. NO2 levels fell as a direct result of reductions in road transport.

In major cities in France, Italy and Spain, annual mean concentrations of NO2 fell by up to 25 per cent in 2020, while in the month of April, concentrations fell by as much as 70 per cent around roads normally busy with traffic. Nevertheless, 89 per cent of the urban population was exposed to levels of NO2 above the WHO guideline.

WHO’s newest guidelines

The latest WHO release on the Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) was in 2021. These AQGs provide new recommendations on air quality levels for protecting human health. Seventeen years have passed since the last guidelines were released (2005) and, meanwhile, there has been an increase in evidence that air pollution affects human health in several ways. Thus, WHO has decreased the levels for almost all guidelines. This decrease impacts immensely the amount of population affected in Europe, e.g., the guideline for PM2.5 annual levels have decreased from 10 µg/m3 to 5 µg/m3.

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