Europe’s urban population exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution

96% of Europe’s urban population was exposed to fine particulate matter above the health-based guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the latest annual European Environment Agency (EEA) air quality assessment.

Despite a noticeable drop in air pollution from road transport in 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdown measures, breaches of European air quality standards remain a common occurrence, according to the briefing published today.

In 2020, reductions in annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide of up to 25% were seen in major cities in France, Italy and Spain during the first lockdown in April 2020, and NO2 concentrations monitored at traffic stations fell by up to 70%.

The EEA briefing presents the latest official data for 2020, plus provisional data for 2021, on concentrations of key air pollutants measured at more than 4,500 monitoring stations across 37 European countries.

aerial photo of a city

Despite reductions and ongoing overall improvements in air quality, the briefing concludes that ‘air pollution is still a major health concern for Europeans’.

Central-eastern Europe and Italy reported the highest concentrations of particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene, a carcinogen, due primarily to the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and their use in industry.

Ozone levels were lower in 2020 than in previous years, but they were still high in Central Europe and some Mediterranean countries.

The European Environment Agency said: ‘Despite reductions in emissions, in 2020 most of the EU’s urban population was exposed to levels of key air pollutants that are damaging to health. Critically for health, 96% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3. In contrast, less than 1% of the urban population was exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 25 µg/m3, highlighting the discrepancy between current EU policy objectives and the scientific evidence on when health effects occur.’

The full briefing can be viewed here.

Photo by Mark Tegethoff


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