Air pollution affects us in many ways, perhaps more than we realize. Most important and obvious are the direct effects on human health. Recent research indicates that small particles (PM2.5) in the air caused nearly 400 000 premature deaths within the 28 EU countries in the year 2015. Another 16 000 premature deaths was caused by ground-level ozone, and exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) caused around 76 000 premature deaths.
Small particles were also responsible for several hundreds of thousand serious hospital admissions in the EU28, and a much larger number of less serious effects, for example more than one million cases of bronchitis and 400-500 million restricted activity days.
But there are also other air pollutants and important indirect effects. This section (see menu in the left hand column) describes both the direct effects of different pollutants on health and vegetation, and some indirect effects, such as toxic groundwater and corrosion of materials, due to acidification.
Toxic air in Europe
The concentrations of air pollutants are generally falling in Europe. But paradoxically enough, the health effects of air pollution are a bigger issue today than they were 20-30 years ago.
This is largely due to the fact that more research, more sophisticated statistical methods and more powerful computers have made it possible to identify links between exposure to air pollutants and a variety of effects on human health even at levels that had previously been considered safe.
The biggest problems from the health perspective are fine particles (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
Current levels of air pollution cause severe health impacts in the European Union, resulting in nearly half a million premature deaths each year, increased hospital admissions, extra medication, and millions of lost working days. Additionally, there is widespread and significant damage to ecosystems, agricultural crops, modern materials, and our cultural heritage.
The annual cost to society of health impacts alone from fine particles and ozone for the year 2010 has been estimated at between 330 and 940 billion euro in the 28 member states of the EU.
A large number of studies conducted in both the US and Europe have shown that when the concentration of small particles in air rises, even from low levels, there is a rise in mortalities due to respiratory, cardiac and circulatory diseases, and more people seek hospital care for bronchitis and asthma.
Even exposure to low levels for long periods is considered harmful and believed to reduce life expectancy.
Using the pollution levels for the year 2000, it has been estimated that exposure to PM2.5 results in an average shortening of statistical life expectancy of more than eight months in the EU, equivalent to 3.6 million life years lost annually. Under current legislation, by 2020 this figure comes down to about 5.5 months (equivalent to 2.5 million life years lost).
Loss in statistical life expectancy that can be attributed to anthropogenic contributions to PM2.5 (months). For the emission levels in the year 2000 (left), and for two projected emission levels for 2020: Current legislation (CLE; centre) and Maximum Technically Feasible Reduction (MTFR; right). For details and country-by-country figures, see factsheet (pdf).
Ozone is a powerful oxidant and can give rise to eye irritations and irritations of the airways that lead to a reduction in lung capacity.
When concentrations rise, even from relatively low levels, the need for increased medication of asthmatic children and increased mortality are among the observed effects. Long-term exposure, even to relatively low concentrations, can lead to permanent lung damage.
Check the level where you live!
Find your local respiratory health forecasts: Know your air for health (external link)
Find out the level of ozone pollution in your area or in any other place in Europe: Live map by EEA (external link)
Other harmful pollutants
Pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds (including benzene) can occur at harmful levels locally and/or under unfavourable weather conditions. In urban environments, road traffic is usually the dominant source of harmful air pollutants.
>> Further reading
Harmful air pollution levels still much too high. Article in Acid News 4/2018.
Air quality in Europe - 2016. EEA Report No 28/2016. (External link)
140 000 life-years lost each year in London because of air pollution. Article in Acid News 3/2015.
Bad air quality prevails. Article in Acid News 1/2015.
Sweden: High health costs of bad air quality. Article in Acid News 1/2015.
Air pollution the world's largest environmental health risk. Article in Acid News 2/2014.
Harmful ozone levels over Europe. Article in Acid News 2/2014.
Air pollution levels still much too high. Article in Acid News 4/2013.
Particles and health. Factsheet from the secretariat, 2006.
Air pollution and health. Factsheet from the secretariat, 2001.
The CAFE programme and the thematic strategy on air pollution. Factsheet from the secretariat, 2005.
Air pollution and man. Chapter 3 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Describing effects, limit values etc.
Acidification. Chapter 5 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Giving data on emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides.
Ground-level ozone. Chapter 7 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Giving data on emissions of ozone precursors.
WHO Europe (external link)
European Commission (external link)
Other effects on mankind
Air pollution and effects on forestry
Most climate scenarios point to warmer, more humid weather in the northern parts of Europe, with a consequential increase in forest growth. In central and southern Europe, however, the temperature rise is likely to be combined with a sharp reduction in rainfall, which would be a major problem for the existing forestry industry.
The availability of nutrients may increase, since decomposition will speed up if the climate gets warmer. Nutrients will circulate faster, and this could support increased production.
Another way that air pollution can promote growth in some parts of Europe is through the fallout of nitrogen. The deposition of nitrogen serves to fertilize the forest and could therefore promote forest growth. On the other hand, too much nitrogen input could bring negative effects. Fallout over parts of Europe still amounts to several tens of kilograms of nitrogen per hectare each year.
Air pollution also has a number of major drawbacks for the forestry industry:
- Some species of trees do not like warmer weather.
- Many forest pests - especially insects and fungi - are favoured by a warmer and more humid climate.
- Acid fallout acidifies the soil and, among other things, reduces the availability of important nutrients for trees. It also slows down decomposition.
- Ground-level ozone damages plants.
Air pollution and agriculture
A crucial issue for agriculture worldwide is the availability of water. For instance, availability in summer is expected to fall in central areas of continental Europe and around the Mediterranean as a result of the enhanced greenhouse effect. The climate in already dry areas of southern Spain may become almost desert-like.
Conditions for farming may change drastically in many parts of the world, resulting in food shortages and social problems.
In northern Europe it is likely that agricultural yields will rise - the growing season may be extended by a few months and precipitation can be expected to increase. On the negative side, however, the higher temperatures could also lead to increased attacks by insects and fungi.
Ozone is probably the pollutant that causes the largest harvest losses in agriculture today. It has been estimated that today's levels could give rise to annual harvest losses worth over 3 billion euros in the EU28.
Air pollution speeds up corrosion
The effects of wind and weather naturally mean that all materials will decay sooner or later, but air pollution speeds up this process. Buildings, vehicles, metal structures, statues, rock carvings, museum artefacts, water pipes, electrical cables etc., are all attacked and damaged. Objects made of limestone and some types of sandstone are especially vulnerable to acid substances, but not even the hardest granite can resist entirely.
The greatest damage is caused by sulphur dioxide, which is corrosive in both gaseous form and when converted into sulphuric acid.
Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the damage, partly through the formation of corrosive nitric acid, and partly by reinforcing the damaging effects of sulphur dioxide.
Ozone and other oxidants react readily with organic substances. They contribute mainly to the breakdown of textiles, leather and rubber. As a result of its oxidizing ability ozone can also increase the corrosiveness of compounds of sulphur and nitrogen oxides.
Major economic losses are caused by the acceleration of corrosion due to air pollution. The annual damage to modern buildings and materials in EU28 was estimated at 1 billion euros in 2010. Added to this is the extensive and serious damage caused to our cultural heritage, which in many cases is impossible to repair or measure in economic terms.
In northern Europe this corrosion has decreased markedly during the 1990s, thanks to reduced emissions of acidifying substances. However, it is still estimated that corrosion over large parts of Europe is at least twice as rapid as the natural background rate.
>> Further reading
Air quality in Europe - 2021. EEA Report no. 15/2021 (External link)
Air pollution still harms ecosystems. Article in Acid News 3/2014.
Damage to vegetation
Among the air pollutants that cause direct damage to plants, ground-level ozone is by far the most significant. The ozone is formed from nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the air, under the influence of sunlight.
In plants, it has been found that damage can occur at concentrations only slightly higher than current background levels. This has a significance on yields from agriculture and forestry, as well as affecting natural ecosystems.
Measurements that have been in progress since the 1950s show that the levels of ozone in the air over Europe have risen by an average of two per cent a year, and that the background level today is two to four times as high as it was in the 1950s. The critical levels, which were presumably only exceeded occasionally at the start of the last century, are now exceeded regularly over almost all of Europe.
The limits that have been set to protect people's health are also regularly exceeded by a significant degree. The situation is worst in the Mediterranean countries of Italy, France, Greece and Spain, and in parts of Germany.
NB. The ozone layer in the stratosphere, at an altitude of 10-40 kilometres, protects us from ultraviolet radiation from the sun and is an essential requirement for all higher life on the Earth. But when ozone is present at ground level it may be harmful to people, animals, plants and materials.
>> Further reading
Air quality in Europe - 2021. EEA Report no. 15/2021. (External link)
Air pollution still harms ecosystems. Article in Acid News 3/2014.
Nitrogen overload still harms ecosystems. Article in Acid News 1/2013.
Air pollution and nature. Chapter 2 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Describes effects of ozone on vegetation.
Ground-level ozone. Chapter 7 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Gives data on emissions of ozone precursors and trends, describes how ozone is formed, etc.
Ground-level ozone. A problem largely ignored in southern Europe. Report published by the secretariat, 2000.