Air pollution linked to half million premature deaths in Europe

Air quality in Europe has improved in recent years due to better regulations and technology but remains an 'invisible killer.' The EEA said the results indicate it's time to double down on cutting air pollution.

Air quality across Europe has improved but remains an "invisible killer" that causes nearly a half million premature deaths each year, the European Environment Agency said in an annual report released Monday.

Air pollution continues to remain above EU and World Health Organization (WHO) limits in large parts of Europe, the data collected in 2016 from 2,500 measuring stations showed.

About 422,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries were caused by tiny particulate matter known as PM2.5 in 2015, of which 391,000 were in the 28-member EU, the report said.   

"Air pollution is an invisible killer and we need to step up our efforts to address the causes. In terms of air pollution, road transport emissions are often more harmful than those from other sources, as these happen at ground level and tend to occur in cities, close to people," said EEA chief Hans Bruyninckx.

Nature and Environment | 27.07.2018

At the same time, stricter air quality standards and technological improvements across Europe have resulted in the number of premature deaths per year due to PM2.5 being slashed by a half a million since 1990.

"It shows us that air policy does work, but it also reminds us that we need to make it work even better to achieve clean air across Europe, for all citizens," said EU Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella.

Europe's battle against deadly air pollution

Cutting back on diesel

Germany has launched a scheme to retrofit its diesel public buses with exhaust-scrubbing systems, and introduce charging points to encourage drivers to switch to e-cars. Still, environmentalists say that's not enough. They want all diesel vehicles — including private cars — retrofitted, or taken off the road.

Europe's battle against deadly air pollution

Taking cars off streets

Milan, one of Italy's most polluted cities, has banned cars from its downtown area during certain hours. Other cities in Italy and abroad have experimented with similar schemes, for example permitting only cars with odd or even license plates on the road at given times in order to limit the amount of traffic.

Europe's battle against deadly air pollution

Free public transport

The Macedonian capital of Skopje is battling with pollution levels up to 15 higher than permitted by the EU — though it's not yet a member state, so isn't facing fines. Macedonia's smog problem is largely down to burning coal and emissions from aging, inefficient industry and vehicles. To get people to leave their dirty old cars at home, the government has introduced free public transport.

Europe's battle against deadly air pollution

Sounding the alarm

One street in London exceeded the EU's annual nitrogen dioxide limit on January 30 — less than a month into 2018. Actually, this is an improvement — it's the first time in a decade the British capital has kept within the annual limit for more than six days. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced he wants to alert the city's schools on days when pollution is particularly bad.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution from vehicles was tied to another 79,000 premature deaths across 41 European countries in 2015. Ground level ozone (O3) was responsible for another 16,400 premature deaths.

Short and long-term exposure to air pollution has been linked to heart disease, stroke, cancer and respiratory problems. Maternal exposure to air pollution is associated with negative impacts on fertility, pregnancy, newborns and children. Air pollution can also have adverse impact on ecosystems.

European governments and automakers are under pressure to take action to improve air quality, with a number of states and cities moving to phase out or ban combustible vehicles and diesel. 

The release of the EEA report came the same day as UN heath agency said in a separate study that globally an estimated 600,000 children under the age of 15 die every year from respiratory problems associated with air pollution.

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A stunning 93 percent of children, or 1.8 billion, are exposed to PM2.5 levels above WHO air quality guidelines, the report said. Children in low- and middle-income countries are particularly impacted by indoor and outdoor air pollution, the report said.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Too much traffic makes for bad air

Cities all over the world are fighting against smog. A German court has ruled that cities are allowed to impose driving bans. Many German cities — including Stuttgart, shown here — have developed an air pollution problem and are debating how best to approach the problem.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Oslo, where the diesel ban is reality

A diesel ban is imposed in the Norwegian capital whenever air pollution levels rise above a prescribed limit. The ban went into effect for the first time on January 17, 2017. Ambulances and other public service vehicles running on diesel are exempt from the measure. The city plans to reduce even more cars by eliminating municipal parking spaces in the center starting in 2019.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Paris is also planning a diesel ban

Starting in 2024, the French capital will ban diesel vehicles; in 2030 it intends to expand the ban to gas-powered cars. Vehicles manufactured before 1997 are already prohibited in the city on weekdays. When air pollution levels exceed prescribed limits, Parisians have to follow a rotation system in which only cars with either even- or odd-numbered plates are allowed to be driven in the city.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

London has a congestion charge

If you want to drive into the center of London, a day's ride through the city will cost you 10 pounds ($13.80, €11.20). London introduced the congestion charge in 2003. Automatic number plate recognition is used to enforce the measures. Anyone who does not pay the fee faces a heavy fine of up to 240 pounds.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Copenhagen – the most bike-friendly city in the world

Copenhagen's mayor, Frank Jensen, wants to prevent new diesel cars from entering the city starting in 2019. Currently, over 300 kilometers of roads in the Danish capital can only be used by cyclists. With the new regulations, cycling will become easier, more convenient and cheaper than driving a car. About half of Copenhageners now cycle to work.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Pedestrian zones spreading in Madrid

Car-free zones like the square in front of Madrid's Teatro Real are set to become a common sight in the city. Almost the entire center of the Spanish capital will be turned into pedestrian zones in the next five years. Madrid has high smog levels, due to being surrounded by mountains, which cause bad air to get trapped in the city.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Helsinki offers a traffic app

Riding public transport will become even easier in the near future in Helsinki. In the next ten years, a mobility on demand system will be developed to include all forms of public transport in one app, including buses, self-driving cars and minibuses with flexible routes. The goal of the app is to be so good that no one will want to own a car.

Battling air pollution through driving bans

Driving electric rickshaws in Delhi

Smog chokes Delhi and levels of air pollution regularly go off the scale. Electric rickshaws will hopefully alleviate the problem. By 2030, all new vehicles will be electrically powered and the city will phase out gas powered vehicles.

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