Air pollution has been proven to increase the risk of respiratory and heart disorders while reducing life expectancy.
Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Director of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), emphasizes, “With the current pollution levels, many people are falling ill. We know that by tackling air pollution levels, we can reduce the number of patients.”
Collaborating with the European Data Journalism Network (EDJN), DW analyzed artificial satellite images from the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS).
The findings reveal that approximately 98% of Europe’s population resides in areas with PM 2.5 particle concentrations exceeding the WHO’s limits.
The WHO recommends that the annual average concentration of these microscopic particles does not exceed five micrograms per cubic meter of air. This unit is a thousand times smaller than one milligram.
The highest pollution levels are concentrated in Central Europe, particularly in the Po Valley in Italy and densely populated areas like Barcelona, Paris, and Athens.
Our analysis shows that the most polluted regions in Europe record an annual PM 2.5 concentration as high as 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
While high air pollution in major European cities has been previously reported, these new findings provide the first comprehensive comparison of pollution levels across the entire continent.
It’s worth noting that air pollution levels in Europe are still far below the pollution levels in megacities in Northern India, such as New Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra, where the annual average PM 2.5 pollution reaches 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air, compared to Europe’s 25 micrograms.
However, this difference does not diminish the threat to public health and quality of life.
European Air Quality Legislation
New regulations from the European Union permit an annual average pollution level of only 10 micrograms. The European Parliament’s Environment Committee previously proposed that the EU adopt stricter WHO limits of five micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Currently, the pollution limit is set at 20 micrograms annually, four times higher than the WHO recommendation.
“The EU’s limit is not only based on health considerations but also contains economic interests. In contrast, the WHO limits are determined solely with health in mind,” says Nieuwenhuijsen. “I hope they adopt the WHO recommendations, but some will surely oppose it, claiming it’s too costly.”
Ignoring Natural Conditions
Copernicus researchers suggest that the northern regions of Italy face some of the highest air pollution levels. Daily PM 2.5 pollution levels in cities like Milan, Padua, and Verona exceed 75 micrograms.
Geographical conditions are believed to be a major contributing factor. The Alps in northern Italy act as a natural barrier trapping pollutants in low-lying areas. Environmental organizations claim that thousands of people in northern Italy die prematurely each year due to diseases caused by air pollution.
“Besides unfavorable geographical conditions, we also do what we shouldn’t,” says Anna Gerometta, director of an Italian NGO advocating for air quality regulations. She believes the government is not genuinely committed to reducing emissions and pollution from motor vehicles, room heaters, and meat factories.
Local Strategies in Poland
Poland serves as a success story for improving air quality in Europe. This has been achieved by offering incentives to modernize room heaters and discontinue the use of coal heating.
For example, in 2018, the city of Krakow reported PM 2.5 pollution of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air annually. By late 2022, this figure remained consistently below 20 micrograms. Similar progress can be observed in other cities like Katowice, Gliwice, Poznan, and Warsaw.
“We call it ‘smog alerts’ because coal heaters produce a lot of smoke,” says Piotr Siergiej from the environmental organization Smog Alert. “Nearly 800,000 coal heaters have been replaced. But there are still three million more. The process is indeed slow.”
Air pollution in Europe exceeds WHO limits in many regions, posing a significant health hazard to its residents. While some areas have successfully improved air quality through strategic initiatives, more stringent regulations are needed to protect public health and address the economic interests at play in the EU’s existing air quality legislation.