Environment

Premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe remain too high despite improved air quality

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Published

November 26, 2020

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Published:

November 26, 2020

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The number of premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe remains too high, at some 400,000 a year, despite improved air quality over the past decade. The latest report on air quality by the European Environment Agency (EEA) also shows that almost everyone in Europe is still affected by air pollution and that nearly 75% of the urban population is exposed to excessive levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 (with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less) was responsible for an estimated 417,000 premature deaths in 41 countries in Europe in 2018, of which around 379,000 were in the European Union (EU), a decline of 13% against 2009 for both the continent as a whole and the EU, according to the EEA report.

The number of premature deaths attributable to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) more than halved compared with 2009, to about 55,000 (54,000 of which in the EU’s 28 member states), while exposure to ground-level ozone (O3) is estimated to have caused a total of 20,600 premature deaths (19,400 in the EU-28), an increase of 20% for Europe as a whole and 24% for the EU.

Nearly 75% of the EU’s urban population is exposed to excessive PM2.5 concentrations

In 2018, nearly three quarters of the EU’s urban population was exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline values, which are much stricter than the EU’s air quality requirements. The EEA notes that the European Commission is working on addressing the gap between EU’s legal air quality limits and the WHO guidelines.

According to the EEA report, only four countries in Europe (Estonia, Finland, Iceland, and Ireland) had PM2.5 concentrations that were below the WHO guideline values in 2018, while six EU member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, and Romania) breached even the bloc’s less stringent limit value.

Balkan countries worst affected by PM2.5 in relative terms

The health impacts of air pollution are measured in terms of premature deaths, but also in years of life lost (YLL), an estimate of the average number of years that a person would have lived had they not died prematurely.

By these two standards, the biggest impacts of PM2.5, one of the most dangerous pollutants, are in the countries with the largest populations (Germany, Italy, Poland, France, and the United Kingdom). In relative terms, however, when considering YLL per 100,000 inhabitants, the worst affected countries are in the Balkan region (Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Kosovo*). On the other hand, the smallest relative impacts are observed in the north and north-west of Europe, namely in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, and Finland.

According to the EEA’s country fact sheets, Romania saw an estimated 25,000 premature deaths attributed to PM2.5 during 2018, followed by Serbia, with 14,600, and Bulgaria, with 12,500. In Greece, an estimated 11,800 lives were cut short due to excessive PM2.5 concentrations in 2018, while Croatia lost 5,100 inhabitants, Albania 5,000, and Slovenia 1,700.

The average exposure indicator for PM2.5 (AEI) could not be calculated for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo as they did not report data for 2018, but according to the most recent figures (for 2016 or 2017), all of them had AEI values above 20 μg/m3, the limit the EU member states were required to achieve as of 2015.

COVID-19 lockdowns led to major drops in air pollutants

The EEA has also analyzed the links between the COVID-19 pandemic and air quality, noting that the lockdown measures in Europe this past spring led to significant reductions in emissions of air pollutants, particularly from road transportation, aviation, and international shipping. For example, NO2 concentrations in April fell by more than 60% in some places.

However, the EEA does not yet have estimates on the potential positive health impacts of the cleaner air during 2020, according to a press release from the agency.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/99 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
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