447,000 premature deaths/year in EU due to bad air quality

Photo: Joe Pomerening CC BY-NC-SA

Elevated levels of air pollutants, primarily fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, are the top environmental cause of premature death in Europe.

In 2012, about 92 per cent of the EU urban population was exposed to levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exceeding the air quality guidelines established by the World Health Organization to protect people’s health. And about 98 per cent of EU urban citizens were exposed to ozone levels exceeding the WHO’s guideline value.

In its annual air quality report, the European Environment Agency (EEA) presents new estimates of the health impacts of air pollution based on 2011 data on concentrations and exposure. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 was responsible for about 458,000 premature deaths in 40 European countries, of which 431,000 in the EU, while short-term exposure to ground-level ozone (O3) lead to about 17,400 premature deaths, as a total for the same 40 countries, and about 16,200 in the EU.

The table shows the best estimate figures for total mortality due to exposure to PM2.5 and O3 per country, for all the European countries included in the analysis.

Germany, the country with the largest population in the list, shows the highest number of premature deaths due to PM2.5 pollution, with nearly 70,000 per year. It is followed by Italy and Poland, with almost 65,000 and 42,400 premature deaths per year, respectively.

Twelve countries with average annual PM2.5 concentrations above 20 μg/m3, mostly in eastern Europe, account for 28 per cent of the total mortality in Europe due to PM2.5 exposure, even though their populations make up only 20 per cent of the European population. These countries are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Greece, Hungary, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, and Slovakia.

When calculating the health impacts attributable to ozone exposure, a cut-off concentration of 35 ppb (70 μg/m3) was applied.

Italy, with the fourth-largest population of the countries studied, has the highest estimate of premature deaths due to O3 pollution, in total almost 3400 per year. It is followed by Germany, France and Spain, with over 2300, 1800 and 1700 premature deaths per year, respectively. Poland, Greece, the United Kingdom, Romania and Hungary all have more than 500 premature deaths a year due to O3 exposure.

In view of the uncertainty regarding the presence of a ‘no-effect threshold’ for ozone impacts on health, an alternative estimate using a cut-off concentration of 10 ppb (20 μg/m3) was also made, and according to this estimate the number of premature deaths due to O3 pollution would amount to 73,700, i.e. more than four times higher.

The choice of cut-off concentration has the highest impacts for countries in the north-western part of Europe (Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and United Kingdom), where the use of a lower cut-off concentration results in 5-10 times higher impacts. In the Mediterranean countries, on the other hand, the difference is lower, about a factor of three, when changing the cut-off from 35 to 10 ppb.

Christer Ågren

The report: Air quality in Europe — 2014 report (November 2014). EEA Report No 5/2014. By the European Environment Agency. Available at: www.eea.europa.eu

Table: Best estimates of premature deaths attributable to exposure to PM2.5 and O3 in 40 European countries.

Country        PM2.5 O3
Austria 6,768 309
Belgium 10,304 220
Bulgaria 10,806 425
Cyprus 710 41
Czech Republic       10,872  376
Germany 69,762  2,342
Denmark        3,979 117
Estonia    647 27
Spain 25,046 1,772
Finland    2,046    74
Greece    10,700 796
Croatia 5,437    246
Hungary    15,952    556
Ireland    1,229    28
Italy    64,544    3,377
Lithuania    2,556  85
Luxembourg    284 10
Latvia    1,789    58
Malta    247    15
Netherlands    12,634    229
Poland    42,412 1100
Portugal    5,707    330
Romania    28,582    633
Sweden    4,221    181
Slovenia    1,938    97
Slovakia    6,300    243
United Kingdom    39,450    634
Andorra    51    4
Bosnia & Herzegovina    3,412    154
Switzerland    4,394    256
Iceland    54    2
Liechtenstein    16    1
Monaco    29    2
Montenegro    482    31
Former Yugoslav Rep. of Macedonia    1,763    108
Norway    1,473    74
Serbia    13,063    495
San Marino    25    -
All   458,065    17,407
EU-28    431,261    16,160



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