Is air quality in Europe getting any better?

Dreaming of an air-pollution-free christmas. Photo: Alles-Schlumpf / / CC BY-NC-SA

In 2010, 90–95 per cent of the EU’s urban citizens were exposed to PM2.5 levels higher than the reference values recommended by the World Health Organization.

A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that many parts of Europe have persistent problems with outdoor levels of airborne particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone. Almost a third of Europe’s city dwellers are exposed to PM concentrations in excess of EU limit values. PM is one of the most important pollutants in terms of harm to human health as it penetrates sensitive parts of the respiratory system.

The report presents an overview and analysis of the status and trends of air quality from 2001 to 2010 in 38 European countries, including the 27 member states of the European Union. It is intended to support the development of more effective clean air policies.

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 (2008–2010).

Particulate matter (PM) is the most serious air pollution health risk in the EU, leading to health damage and premature mortality. In 2010, 21 per cent of the urban population was exposed to PM10 concentrations higher than the daily EU limit value. Up to 30 per cent of the urban population was exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the less stringent yearly EU limit values.

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 some 80 per cent of EU urban dwellers were exposed to PM10 concentrations that exceed the WHO guidelines set for the protection of human health, and 90–95 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 – 97 per cent of EU urban inhabitants were exposed to ozone concentrations above the WHO reference level in 2010. 17 per cent were exposed to concentrations above the EU target value. Moreover, in 2009, 22 per cent of arable land in Europe was exposed to damaging concentrations of ozone, leading to agricultural losses.

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 2010, seven per cent of Europeans living in cities were exposed to NO2 levels above the EU limit values. Calculated exceedances of the critical loads for eutrophication cover most of continental Europe as well as Ireland and southern areas of the United Kingdom and Sweden. National emissions of nitrogen oxides in many EU countries still exceed emission ceilings set by EU legislation.

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a carcinogen. A considerable proportion of the urban population in the EU (20–29 per cent between 2008 and 2010) 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 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. 2010 was the first year that the EU urban population was not exposed to SO2 concentrations above the EU limit value. While the calculated exceedances of the critical loads for acidification have fallen significantly over the last decades, high exceedances still occur in Belgium, the north-west coast of France, the Netherlands and Poland.

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 in 2010.

Commenting on the report, EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade, said: “EU policy has reduced emissions of many pollutants over the last decade, but we can go further. In many countries, air pollutant concentrations are still above the legal and recommended limits that are set to protect the health of European citizens. In fact, air pollution reduces human life expectancy by around two years in the most polluted cities and regions.”

In a speech at the launch of the EEA air quality report, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik pointed out that: “Clean air is an investment that makes a lot of economic sense. We cannot afford not to act. Our current analysis shows that if we do nothing, we will see 200,000 premature deaths in the EU by 2020 due to particle emissions alone – but with concerted action, this number can be pushed down to 130,000. To invest in clean air means to invest in our future.”

Commissioner Potočnik also stressed that a strengthened air quality regime in the EU will actually benefit European competitiveness by giving a lead in growing markets, such as China. He continued: “Sustaining air quality is therefore not only an environmental objective, but also an economic opportunity. As part of the [EU air quality] review, I am considering setting up an innovation programme specifically targeted on clean air, to support our industry to invest in clean technologies for clean air.”

The European Commission is currently preparing a review of EU air pollution legislation in consultation with stakeholders (see AN 3/12) and will put a particular emphasis on air pollution policies in 2013.

Christer Ågren

Air quality in Europe – 2012 report (2012). EEA Report No 4/2012. Published by the European Environment Agency. Available at:
Commissioner Potočnik’s speech at the launch of the EEA air quality report is available at:

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