Air pollution levels still much too high

Illustration: © Lars-Erik Håkansson

More than 95 per cent of the EU’s urban citizens are exposed to levels of PM2.5 and ozone higher than the reference values recommended by the World Health Organization.

Europe’s air pollution problem is far from solved. A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) points out that two specific pollutants, particulate matter and ground-level ozone, continue to be a source breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives.

Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96 per cent of city dwellers were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations above WHO guidelines and up to 98 per cent were exposed to ozone levels above WHO guidelines. New scientific findings show that health can be harmed by lower concentrations of air pollution than previously thought.

The report presents an overview and analysis of the status and trends of air quality from 2002 to 2011 in 38 European countries, including the member states of the European Union. It is an EEA contribution to the European Commission’s review of air quality policy and the EU “Year of Air”.

While emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe have declined over the last ten years, due to the complex links between emissions and air quality, this has not always resulted in a corresponding reduction in pollutant concentrations in ambient air, especially for PM and ground-level ozone.

Some key findings for the different air pollutants covered by the report are given below and summarised in the table.

Table: Percentage of the urban population in the EU exposed to air pollutant concentrations above the EU and WHO reference levels (2009–2011).

Particulate matter (PM) is the most serious air pollution health risk in the EU, leading to health damage and premature mortality. The EU limit and target values for PM10, that should originally have been met by 2005, were exceeded widely in Europe in 2011, with the daily limit value being exceeded in 22 countries, and one third of the urban population being exposed to PM10 concentrations higher than the daily EU limit value.

In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published air quality guidelines values for a number of air pollutants, recommended to be achieved everywhere in order to reduce the adverse health effects of air pollution. The WHO recommended levels for PM are stricter than the limit values imposed by EU law.

The EEA report shows that 88 per cent of EU urban dwellers were exposed to PM10 concentrations that exceed the WHO guidelines set for the protection of human health, and up to 96 per cent of the urban population were exposed to PM2.5 concentrations in excess of the WHO guidelines.

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 SO2, nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Ozone (O3) can cause respiratory health problems and lead to premature mortality. It can also damage vegetation, including forest trees and agricultural crops. Ozone is a secondary pollutant, formed from precursor pollutants, primarily NOx, VOCs, methane and carbon monoxide. Exposure in cities is very high – 98 per cent of EU urban inhabitants were exposed to ozone concentrations above the WHO reference level in 2011, while 14 per cent were exposed to concentrations above the laxer EU target value.

Moreover, in 2010, one fifth of arable land in Europe was exposed to damaging concentrations of ozone, leading to agricultural losses. The critical level set for protection of forests was exceeded at 61 per cent of the total forest area in the EEA’s 32 member countries in 2010 – the highest exceedances occurred in southern France and northern Italy.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a major cause of eutrophication (over-fertilisation that may negatively affect biodiversity and cause excessive plant and algal growth in marine ecosystems) and acidification. NO2 also contributes to the formation of PM and ozone. In 2011, five per cent of Europeans living in cities were exposed to NO2 levels above the EU limit values.

Eutrophication is still a widespread problem – 62 per cent of European ecosystem areas and 71 per cent of the area covered by Natura 2000 protected sites were exposed to nitrogen deposition in 2010 that exceeded eutrophication limits. National emissions of nitrogen oxides in many EU countries still exceed emission ceilings set by EU legislation that should have been met by 2010.

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a carcinogen. A considerable proportion of the urban population in the EU (22–31 per cent between 2009 and 2011) were exposed to concentrations exceeding the EU target value, which must be met by 2013. The increase in BaP emissions in Europe in recent years, especially from domestic solid-fuel combustion, is therefore a matter of concern.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) causes acidification and contributes to PM formation. Emissions of SO2 have been reduced significantly in recent years and 2010 was the first year that the EU urban population was not exposed to SO2 concentrations above the EU limit value. However, around half of the urban population was exposed to SO2 levels exceeding the stricter WHO guideline. While exceedances of the critical loads for acidification have fallen significantly over the last few decades, excess acid fallout was still occurring in one tenth of the forest area and on one quarter of European lakes in 2010.

Carbon monoxide, benzene and heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, nickel, lead, mercury) concentrations in outdoor air are generally low, localised and sporadic in the EU, with few exceedances of the limit and target values set by EU legislation. However, the deposition of heavy metals contributes to the build-up of these pollutants in soils and sediments, and since they are persistent in the environment they may bio-accumulate in food chains. Depositions of mercury are estimated to exceed the critical loads in more than half of the area of sensitive ecosystems in the EU.

Commenting on the report, EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx, said: “Air pollution is causing damage to human health and ecosystems. Large parts of the population do not live in a healthy environment, according to current standards. To get on to a sustainable path, Europe will have to be ambitious and go beyond current legislation.”

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik added: “Air quality is a central concern for many people. Surveys show that a large majority of citizens understand well the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels, even in times of austerity and hardship. I am ready to respond to these concerns through the Commission’s air policy review.”

Commissioner Potočnik pointed out that the report is “a powerful reminder of the scale of the challenges we are facing” and continued: “Our review analysis confirms that air pollution is the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, with over 400,000 premature deaths in 2010. More than ten times the deaths from traffic accidents! This is a huge cost to citizens’ health and the economy. The external costs were between €330–940 billion per year in 2010. Among these are significant direct impacts on the economy: 100 million lost workdays each year, with a direct cost of about €15 billion in lost productivity. Bad air also adds €4 billion to our healthcare costs because of hospitalisation.”

The European Commission is currently at the very final stages of its air quality policy review – at the time of writing a revised Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution and accompanying proposals for EU legislation are subject to internal negotiations within the Commission services, and adoption and publication of the proposals is expected by early December.

Christer Ågren

Air quality in Europe – 2013 report. EEA Report No 9/2013.
Commissioner Potočnik’s speech at the launch of the EEA air quality report.


Air pollution effects

  • Damage to human health caused by exposure to air pollutants, or by intake of pollutants transported through the air, deposited and then accumulated in the food chain;
  • Acidification of ecosystems (both terrestrial and aquatic), which leads to loss of flora and fauna and to impoverishment of soils;
  • Eutrophication in ecosystems on land and in water, which results in changes in species diversity;
  • Damage and yield losses to agricultural crops and forests and damage to other plants due to exposure to ground-level ozone;
  • Impacts of heavy metals or toxic metalloids and persistent organic pollutants on ecosystems, due to their environmental toxicity and due to bioaccumulation;
  • Contribution to climate forcing and indirect effects on climate;
  • Reduction in visibility;
  • Damage to materials, buildings and cultural monuments through soiling and corrosion due to exposure to soot (PM), acidifying pollutants and ozone.


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