European air quality improves but still detrimental to health: report

Copenhagen - Air quality has improved significantly across Europe over the past 10 years, but pollution still contributes to significant numbers of premature deaths, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said Monday.

According to a new EEA study, European urban areas especially suffer health impacts including fatal respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

In 2018, 34 percent of urban inhabitants of the 27 EU countries and the UK were breathing ground-level ozone particles at concentrations above EU health target levels.

And 15 percent were breathing so called PM10 particles (particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less) at levels above the EU daily limit.

Deaths linked to fine particle pollution across Europe in 2018

European criteria are also less strict than the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some 99 percent of European city dwellers were exposed to ozone levels above the WHO's recommended threshold, and 48 percent when it comes to PM10 particles.

However, much progress has been made over the past 10 years  across Europe and the Copenhagen-based EEA estimates that some 400,000 premature deaths have been avoided.

Since 2000, it has recorded decreases in emissions of several key air pollutants, especially sulphur and nitrogen oxides.

The impact of air pollution on human health

The EEA also noted an "absolute decoupling" of emissions from economic activity, meaning emissions went down even as economic activity increased.

Multiple factors including "increased regulation and policy implementation, fuel switching, technological improvements and improvements in energy or process efficiencies" could be behind the drop, the EEA said.

"It is good news that air quality is improving thanks to the environmental and climate policies that we have been implementing," Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said in a statement.

"But we can’t ignore the downside – the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high."

Across 41 European countries in 2018, some 60,000 fewer people died prematurely from fine matter air pollution (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres) than in 2009.

Exposure to fine particle matter is still estimated to have caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 2018, 379,000 of them in the 27 EU countries plus the UK.

In the EU and the UK, 54,000 premature deaths were linked to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2018, which is less than half of the figure from 2009.

Air pollution

Another 19,400 deaths were linked to ground-level ozone, which in contrast represented a 24 percent increase compared to 2009.

And the report confirmed that measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 have led to a temporary improvement in air quality in Europe.

For instance the concentration of NO2 fell by 61 percent in Spain, 52 percent in France and 48 percent in Italy in April, when all three countries imposed strict virus measures.