European Union Pushes for Stronger Air Pollution Rules  
Air pollution
Air pollution is the 10th leading cause of death in the European Union.

At least 300,000 people lose their lives to air pollution each year across the European Union, and the bloc is pushing to tighten air quality regulations as part of its Green New Deal legislative package.

The new rules aim to reduce the number of premature deaths and illness caused by air pollution, as well as reducing pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity caused by poor air quality – two criteria the EU said are critical to its ambition of reaching an environment free of harmful pollution by 2050.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of Europeans die prematurely and many more suffer from heart- and lung diseases or pollution-induced cancers,” said Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the European Green Deal. “The longer we wait to reduce this pollution, the higher the costs to society.”

The new rules aim to limit PM2.5 and NO2, the two deadliest air pollutants,  to 10 µg/m3 and 20 µg/m3 respectively, which the EU says will cut premature deaths due to air pollution by at least 55% by 2030, potentially saving over 150,000 lives.

The WHO’s air quality guidelines are more stringent, advising targets of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5 and 10 µg/m3 for NO2, half of the levels under the new proposal. But the EU says its proposed levels will reduce deaths resulting from air pollution above WHO guidelines by 75% in 10 years.

Ambient air pollution is a leading cause of strokes, cancer and diabetes in the EU, costing an estimated €300-853 billion per year to public authorities. The new air quality standards will cost less than 0.1% of GDP and provide a return of at least seven times that number, with gross annual benefits estimated between €42 billion and €121 billion in 2030, at an annual cost of less than €6 billion.

“The cost in inaction is far greater than the cost of prevention,” EU Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius said in a statement. The health effects of polluted air affect “the vulnerable most of all,” he added.

Most European cities are above new air pollution targets

European cities will need to make major advances by 2030 to meet the new limits.

An analysis of 2019 data released this week by the Health Effects Institute and State of Global Air found only 22% of European cities met the proposed limits on PM2.5 levels, while 84% met the new target for NO2 concentration.

The health effects of air pollution, even if they are not fatal, can be devastating. Pregnant women who are exposed to air with PM2.5 concentrations are at a higher risk of delivering infants with health issues such as premature birth and low birth weight.

Additionally, research has shown that air pollution caused by traffic can lead to the development of asthma in both children and adults, as well as increase the risk of acute lower respiratory infections in children and lung cancer-related deaths. For its part, NO2 has been linked to increased vulnerability to severe respiratory infections and asthma, while long-term exposure can cause chronic lung disease.

That report also reinforced the stark geographic patterns in air quality noted by previous studies, with countries and cities in Central and Western Europe seeing the highest PM2.5 concentrations. Higher air pollution levels in the region correlate to its elevated reliance on coal and solid fuel in industrial and domestic settings.

The Bulgarian capital of Sophia topped the list for most polluted air of European capital cities, while 15 of the top 20 most polluted cities overall were in Poland.

NO2 concentrations were observed to be highest in large cities like Paris and Barcelona, likely due to heavy vehicle traffic. Central and Eastern European cities tended to have lower NO2 concentrations. Overall, eight out of 10 urban residents in the EU are exposed to PM2.5 levels above the new target of 10 µg/m3, while 5 out of 10 breathe air above the 20 µg/m target for NO2.

While the modelling of NO2’s effects on premature mortality are not yet well-developed, a recent study found PM2.5 to be associated with 90.4% of all air pollutions deaths in Europe between 1990 and 2019.

Progress is in the right direction, but danger lingers in the air

The average annual population-weighted aPM2.5 concentration in European countries for 1990 (left) and 2019 (right).

While it still has a long way to go to meet its goals, Europe has made steady progress in reducing air pollution in recent decades.

A 2021 study exploring the impact of air quality on health in 43 European countries – including Russia and Iceland – between 1990 and 2019 found that on average, public exposure to PM2.5 fell by 33.7%.

The report also found socioeconomic determinants had a substantial impact on air pollution-related deaths. Countries ranking in the lowest income bracket lost 11 times as many adjusted life years on average to ischemic heart disease attributed to air pollution, and 25 times more adjusted life years to air pollution-induced strokes.

Air-pollution deaths per capita were highest in Eastern European countries where PM2.5 concentrations remain unchecked. Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia had death rates five and seven times higher than the European average, respectively.

Their average lost adjusted life years were also the highest in Europe and 32 times higher than Iceland, which had the lowest rate of the countries surveyed.

Some 24,917 years of life were lost per 100,000 people in Europe in 2019 from premature deaths from air pollution exposure, which marked a decrease of 63% from 1990.

“By 2050, we want our environment to be free of harmful pollutants,” Timmermans said. “That means we need to step up action today.”

Image Credits: Tangopaso, Mariordo, State of Global Air, Scientific Reports.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.