Nitrogen dioxide levels (NO2) decreased sharply in major cities in France, Spain, and Italy during the first lockdown in spring 2020. Photo: © Marco Iacobucci Epp /

Air quality still a major health risk for Europeans

The Covid lockdown led to reduced pollution from traffic in 2020. Nevertheless, 96 per cent of Europeans were exposed to harmful levels of fine particultate matter (PM2.5).

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) has published data on the state of air in 2020 and how the population in Europe has been affected by air quality. 2020 was a year in which everyone was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and most countries implemented lockdown measures to minimise the spread of the disease. One indirect effect of the lockdown measures was a reduction in air pollutants from some sectors, mainly related to transport (road, shipping, and aviation), although some reduction in industrial activities also decreased emissions. Other sectors such as agriculture remained unchanged and there was a small increase in domestic heating as people spent more time at home. The largest effect was seen in nitrogen dioxide levels (NO2) in major cities in France, Spain, and Italy during the first lockdown in spring 2020.

Nevertheless, most of the urban population in the EU was exposed to harmful air pollutants, for example 96% of the urban EU population was exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations above the 2021 WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3. In contrast, only 1% of the urban population was exposed to PM2.5 levels above current EU policy, highlighting the discrepancy between current EU policy objectives and the scientific evidence on when health effects occur. No PM2.5 data was reported from some EU countries (Cyprus, Latvia, Slovenia) and there is a large variation in the number of PM2.5 monitoring stations by country, for example Denmark only reported from one station.

NO2 levels were generally below current EU policy with exceedances at 1% of the stations, and all exceedances were at traffic stations. Once again there is a large discrepancy between limits under EU policy and those recommended by WHO, with the latter resulting in exceedances at 73% of the stations.

For ozone, levels were generally reduced, probably due to lower levels of ozone precursors from traffic emissions, but they were still high in some Mediterranean countries and central Europe.

ETC-HE Report 2022/3
Briefing EU Air quality status

Figure. Share of the EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU standards and WHO guidelines in 2020.



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