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Air pollution in Europe: The silent killer

Air pollution in Europe: While pollution kills thousands of Europeans each year, the European Union is failing to meet the air quality targets set by the World Health Organisation, Marilyn Wright reports

Marilyn Wright

By Marilyn Wright

Marilyn Wright is a journalist based in London

06 Dec 2023

Florence Nightingale knew the benefits of fresh air. The pioneering nurse, renowned for her work during the Crimean war, was adamant that fresh air helped injured soldiers recover faster, and improved overall health and wellbeing. Today’s health experts are equally effusive, and scientists are continuing to discover the health advantages of breathing clean air.  

On the flip side, there is evidence that air pollution is associated with a string of adverse health conditions. Even low levels of air pollutants harm health, which is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) set stringent new targets on air quality in September 2021 – targets the European Union is failing to meet.  

“Ninety-six per cent of people in the EU are still exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution,” Emma Bud, a lawyer at the environmental law group ClientEarth, tells The Parliament. “The current air quality laws are more than 10 years old, with the result that the existing legal air pollution limits in the EU are now five times greater than the scientific recommendations of the WHO.” 

Air pollution limits in the EU are now five times greater than the scientific recommendations of the WHO

Air pollution is a mix of gases (nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide) and particulate matter (microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the air). It comes from many sources and can be human-made – such as from industrial chimneys, traffic exhausts, or agricultural practices – or natural, from sea spray or desert dust. 

It’s an issue that has been taxing EU officials since 2008, when the Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQD) were established to set specific air quality standards and emission limits for various pollutants.  

The directives form the cornerstone of EU legislation aimed at regulating and improving air quality across Member States. But despite improvements in recent years, increasing urbanisation, industrialisation and transportation means the air quality in many regions of the EU has fallen below acceptable standards, posing significant health risks to the population.  

air pollution in Europe

“Air quality is the biggest environmental threat to our health, causing approximately 300,000 premature deaths per year in the EU alone,” Javi López, a Spanish MEP with the S&D, tells The Parliament. “It also contributes to a long list of debilitating diseases and medical conditions, including cardiovascular disorders, chronic respiratory diseases, stroke, cancer, diabetes and dementia.” 

It’s a view backed by the European Environment Agency (EEA). Its research shows the mortality burden associated with air pollution remains high in Europe, with 238,000 premature deaths associated with fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and 49,000 premature deaths associated with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2020.