EU agency report highlights cost of urban air pollution

European Environment Agency annual air pollution report says poor air quality responsible for 400,000 early deaths in Europe in 2011

European cities are still suffering from high levels of various kinds of air pollution, resulting in high economic, environmental and health costs across the continent, according to the latest annual report on air pollution from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Published yesterday (November 19) by the EU agency, the report presents an overview and analysis of air quality in Europe from 2003 to 2012, showing that “almost all” city dwellers are exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The EEA headquarters in  Copenhagen, Denmark

The EEA headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark

For some pollutants, more than 95% of the urban population is exposed to unsafe levels, with the report stating that current pollution levels — especially for particulate matter, ozone (O3) and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) — “clearly impact large parts of the urban population”.

The findings build on last year’s EEA air quality report covering the years 2002-2011, which emphasised the continued ‘major’ contribution of Europe’s transport sector to excessive levels of air and noise pollution (see story).

And, alongside the report, the EEA has published data showing pollution levels in almost 400 cities across Europe, showing that while many large cities have relatively low levels of pollution, others have pollution levels above EU limits for a “significant part of the year”.

The most ‘problematic’ pollutants in terms of harm to human health are listed as particulate matter (PM) — particularly fine particulate matter – and ground-level ozone (O3), followed by BaP (an indicator for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs]) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Indeed, the pollutant which increased the most over the last decade was BaP, the EEA found, concentrations of which increased by more than a fifth (21%) between 2003 and 2012 as urban use of woodstoves and biomass heating increased.

EEA notes that exposure to BaP is “a matter of increasing concern”, as in 2012, almost nine out of ten city dwellers were exposed to BaP above WHO reference levels.


Long-term exposure to particulate matter was responsible for the vast majority of air pollution-caused premature deaths in Europe in 2011, the study shows, while high levels of ground level ozone over short episodes also caused a “significant number of deaths”.

Graphic from EEA air pollution 2014 report showing impacts of air pollution

Graphic from EEA air pollution 2014 report showing impacts of air pollution (click to enlarge)

Estimates of the number of deaths due to exposure indicate that around 458,000 people in over 40 European countries died prematurely in 2011 due to PM2.5. Meanwhile, short term exposure to ozone was responsible for 17,400 premature deaths per year.

In the UK, the EEA report’s ‘best estimate’ is that PM2.5 was responsible for 39,450 premature deaths in 2011, while ozone was responsible for 634 premature deaths.


In terms of the “widespread” damage to ecosystems — via the likes of eutrophication, acidification and plant damage — the most harmful air pollutants are named in the report as ozone, ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Indeed, the EU’s long term objective for limiting ozone was exceeded across 87% of Europe’s agricultural area in 2012, the report shows.

However, the report notes that measures to cut black carbon emissions to air and other pollutants such as methane (CH3), will help reduce health and ecosystem damage as well as the extent of global warming.

“Air quality and climate change can thus be tackled together by policies and measures developed through an integrated approach,” the report states.

The analysis covers up to 38 European countries, including the 28 EU Member States and member countries of the EEA.

Commenting on the report, EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx, said: “Air pollution is still high in Europe. It leads to high costs: for our natural systems, our economy, the productivity of Europe’s workforce, and most seriously, the general health of Europeans.”


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