Elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone are still a hazard for both crops and people. Photo: Flickr.com / Pierre Metivier CC BY-NC

Stronger air quality measures needed

Air pollution remains the single largest environmental health hazard in Europe, resulting in a lower quality of life due to illnesses and nearly half a million premature deaths per year.

Air quality in Europe is slowly improving, according to a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA). Using data from official monitoring stations across Europe, and including more than 400 cities, the report presents an updated overview and analysis of air quality from 2000 to 2014.

The good news is that annual average levels of PM10 have fallen in three-quarters of the monitored locations during the period 2000–2014, and average PM2.5 concentrations have also decreased between 2006 and 2014.

Despite these improvements, almost all city dwellers continue to be exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2014, around nine out of ten urban citizens in the EU were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone levels above the WHO guideline values. See Table 1.

Table1. Percentage of the urban population in the EU28 exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU and WHO reference levels (2012–2014).

Moreover, in the 41 countries considered, 467,000 premature deaths in 2013 were attributed to PM2.5 exposure and 71,000 and 17,000 premature deaths to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3) exposure, respectively. In the EU28, the numbers of premature deaths attributed to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 exposure were 436,000, 68,000 and 16,000, respectively.

Table 2 shows the best estimate figures for total mortality due to exposure to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 per country, for all the European countries included in the analysis.

Table 2. Estimates of premature deaths attributable to exposure to PM2.5, O3 and NO2 in 40 European countries.

The report also shows country-by-country data on the estimated number of years of life lost (YLL) and the YLL per 100,000 inhabitants due to exposure to the different pollutants. In the EU28, the YLL attributed to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 exposure are 4,668,000, 723,000 and 179,000, respectively.

When considering YLL per 100,000 inhabitants due to PM2.5, the largest impacts are observed in the central and eastern European countries, which is also where the highest concentrations are observed, i.e. Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Greece, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The largest health impacts attributable to NO2 exposure and expressed as YLL per 100,000 inhabitants, are found in Italy, Belgium, the UK and Serbia. Regarding ozone, the countries with the highest rates of YLL per100,000 inhabitants are Greece, Italy, most of the countries in the western Balkans and Hungary.

It should be noted that the impacts estimated for each pollutant may not be added to determine the total impact attributable to exposure to the three pollutants. Because concentrations – especially those of PM2.5 and NO2 – are correlated, additions may result in double counting.

On top of the health impacts, air pollution continues to damage vegetation and ecosystems. Elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone damage agricultural crops, forests and plants by reducing photosynthesis. In 2013, the EU’s long-term objective for the protection of vegetation was exceeded in 81 per cent of the total EU agricultural area, and the critical level for the protection of forests was exceeded in 68 per cent of the total EU forest area.

Excess deposition of sulphur and nitrogen compounds (from emissions of SO2, NOx, and NH3) contribute to the acidification of soil, lakes and rivers, causing the loss of biodiversity. In 2010, seven per cent of the total EU ecosystem area and five per cent of the Natura 2000 area were exposed to acidifying depositions exceeding the limits of nature’s tolerance.

Emissions of NH3 and NOx also disrupt land and water ecosystems by introducing excessive amounts of nutrient nitrogen, causing eutrophication, an oversupply of nutrients, with resulting impacts on biodiversity. In 2010, nearly two-thirds of the total EU ecosystem area and three-quarters of the Natura 2000 area were exposed to nitrogen deposition exceeding the critical eutrophication limits.

Commenting on the report, EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said: “Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment. We need to tackle the root causes of air pollution, which calls for a fundamental and innovative transformation of our mobility, energy and food systems. This process of change requires action from us all, including public authorities, businesses, citizens and research community.”

Christer Ågren

Note: PM in ambient air originates both from primary particles emitted directly into the air and from secondary particles produced as a result of chemical reactions of PM precursor pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). New research shows that PM concentrations can be considerably reduced by additional cuts in agricultural NH3 emissions.
Air quality in Europe - 2016 report. EEA Report No 28/2016. Available at: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2016

EU environmental indicators

More action is needed to protect the natural environment and people’s health. This is the main conclusion of the EEA’s new report on environmental indicators, which gives a snapshot of progress made so far in meeting a selected number of EU policy objectives that are relevant to achieving the three key priority objectives of the EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme: natural capital; resource-efficient, low-carbon economy, and people’s health and well-being.

The report and briefings: http://www.eea.europa.eu/airs



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