Around 90 % of city dwellers in the European Union (EU) are exposed to one of the most damaging air pollutants at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to the latest assessment of air quality in Europe published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
'Air quality in Europe – 2013 report', identifies vehicles, industry, agriculture and homes as contributors to air pollution in the region. Despite falling emission levels and reductions of some air pollutant concentrations in recent decades, two specific pollutants: particulate matter and ground-level ozone, continue to be a source breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives.
“Air pollution is causing damage to human health and ecosystems,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. “Large parts of the population do not live in a healthy environment, according to current standards. To get on to a sustainable path, Europe will have to be ambitious and go beyond current legislation.”
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik added: “Air quality is a central concern for many people. Surveys show that a large majority of citizens understand well the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels, even in times of austerity and hardship.”
Cities and rural areas
Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96 % of city dwellers were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations above WHO guidelines and up to 98 % were exposed to ozone (O3) levels above WHO guidelines. Lower proportions of EU citizens were exposed to levels of these pollutants exceeding the limits or targets set out in EU legislation. These EU limits or targets are in certain cases less strict than WHO guidelines. See EEA data on EU exposure in 2011.
The report notes that rural areas as well as cities have significant levels of air pollution.
National differences across Europe are presented in a series of country fact-sheets accompanying the main findings.
There have been several success stories in cutting emissions of air pollutants – for example sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants, industry and transport have been reduced over the last decade, reducing exposure. Phasing out leaded petrol has also reduced concentrations of lead, found to affect neurological development.
Alongside health concerns, the report also highlights environmental problems such as eutrophication, which is when excessive nutrient nitrogen damages ecosystems, threatening biodiversity. Eutrophication is still a widespread problem that affects most European ecosystems.
Emissions of some nitrogen-containing pollutants have decreased, for example emissions of nitrogen oxides and ammonia have fallen by 27 % and 7 % respectively since 2002. However, emissions were not reduced as much as anticipated, with eight EU Member States breaching legal ceilings a year after the deadline for compliance. To address eutrophication, the study’s authors say that further measures are needed to reduce emissions of nitrogen.