20th Feb 2020

Europe's city dwellers at high risk of pollution exposure

  • More than 90 percent of city dwelling Europeans live with poor air quality (Photo: EUobserver)

Over 90 percent of people living in Europe's cities are exposed to high levels of dangerous air pollutants, according to research by the EU's environment watchdog.

The findings are part of the annual 'Air Quality in Europe' report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) Tuesday.

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The agency marked out two specific pollutants as posing a "significant threat", fine particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone, both of which can lead to breathing problems and heart disease. Both pollutants are produced by chemical reactions involving carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and methane.

Some 96 percent of Europe's urban population were exposed to PM levels higher than limits recommended by the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO), with 98 percent at risk from ground level ozone, said the report.

Meanwhile, eight EU countries, including France and Germany, were in breach of rules on nitrogen pollutants, according to the agency.

However, the report found that overall air quality in Europe improved between 2002-2011, largely as a result of a 50 percent reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide, as well as the gradual phasing out of leaded petrol.

"Air pollution is causing damage to human health and ecosystems," said Hans Bruyinckx, the agency's executive director, adding that lawmakers would "have to be ambitious and go beyond current legislation."

Meanwhile, launching the report in Brussels on Tuesday (15 October), the bloc's environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, said that he would propose stricter targets on reducing emissions between 2020 and 2030 as part of the commission's review of its five-year-old air quality framework.

"I would like to see much more substantial mandatory emission reduction targets based on the technology that is proven today," said Potocnik. Current EU air emissions targets are based on the so-called Gothenburg protocol agreed at UN-level in 1999.

"A large majority of citizens understand the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels," commented Potocnik.

The EU executive estimates that poor air quality adds €4 billion per year to healthcare costs and is the main environmental cause of premature death across the continent.

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