27th Feb 2024


Children, old, and vulnerable — the victims of air-pollution

  • The burden of air pollution also falls disproportionally on the most vulnerable in our society, with social and economic inequalities being linked to exposure to poorer air quality (Photo: European Parliament)
Listen to article

Despite good progress in improving the air we breathe, poor air quality remains a risk for Europeans' health. As well as causing deaths, for example due to cancer and heart disease, air pollution significantly affects the quality of life of people living with diseases such as asthma and diabetes.

Overall, air pollution continues to pose the greatest environmental risk to people's health in Europe. This was made clear at the recent EU Clean Air Forum in Rotterdam, where experts, national and EU political leaders and activists called for stepped up action to address polluted air, especially in our cities.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The fact is that the number of deaths due to exposure to air pollution remains too high. According to the latest estimates by the European Environment Agency, at least 253,000 deaths in the EU in 2021 were attributable to exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels above the WHO guideline value of 5 µg/m3. In the same year, nitrogen dioxide pollution led to 52,000 deaths and short-term exposure to ozone led to 22,000 attributable deaths in the EU.

The actual harm related to air pollution is even higher as we know that pollution below the WHO guideline levels is also likely to negatively impact our health. We should also not forget the impact pollution has in causing or worsening existing chronic illnesses, and the significant costs it continues to put on our healthcare systems.

The burden of air pollution also falls disproportionally on the most vulnerable in our society, with social and economic inequalities being linked to exposure to poorer air quality. Children and the elderly tend to suffer the worst health consequences from breathing in polluted air, whilst people on lower incomes often live in the most polluted areas.

Add to this the increasing impacts of climate change, like the heatwaves we have seen over recent years, or emissions from climate-change related forest fires, which also exacerbate the problem.

The risks posed by air pollution can also be increased by changes in weather patterns. For example, ground-level ozone concentrations can increase during hot and dry periods. Decreasing rainfall in parts of Europe can also reduce the dilution and deposition of particulate matter, resulting in higher airborne concentrations.

Cocktail of pollution plus heat

In particular, the combined impacts of air pollution and extreme heat can result in higher mortality rates, particularly for the elderly and people with existing illnesses. The increased risk associated with combined exposure further calls for even more urgent action to reduce air pollution, reducing related illness and increasing the capacity of the population to cope with higher temperatures.

The cocktail of pollution and heat is particularly serious in cities, where air quality is poor, and the urban heat island effect leads to even higher local temperatures.

This is why it is so important that decision makers at European, national, and local levels are fully aware of the impacts air pollution is having on citizens' health as well as on ecosystems, and of the urgency to protect those most affected. Better public awareness of the health impacts of air pollution can also help create greater support for new policies and actions to improve air quality.

Thanks to EU legislation, including the Ambient Air Quality Directives, and action at national, regional, and local levels, the number of deaths attributable to exposure to fine particle pollution in the EU has nearly halved in the past two decades.

Europe is on track to achieve its zero-pollution action plan target of reducing these deaths by 55 percent by 2030, compared to 2005.

Yet, reaching this target will still leave a significant number of deaths occurring every year, and the ultimate vision is to reduce pollution to levels that are no longer harmful to health. Achieving this goal by 2050 will require significant additional actions.

To protect the health of our citizens, the EU and all our member countries should aim to achieve the WHO guidelines on air pollution.

Strengthening the existing standards in EU legislation will support this objective as well as actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the EU climate goals. The European Environment Agency remains committed to supporting these efforts, providing relevant and reliable knowledge for policymakers and the European public.

Author bio

Leena Ylä-Mononen is exeuctive director of the European Environment Agency.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Air pollution in many EU cities 'stubbornly high'

Many European citizens are still exposed to illegal and dangerous levels of pollution, especially badly in Italy and Poland, new data from the European Environment Agency revealed.

For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive

The EU Commission's 2022 CSDDD proposal did not include provisions incorporating "conflict due diligence", they were added, after the Russian invasion, by the European Parliament and Council into the final directive text — for Ukraine's sake, vote for it.

Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?

Fewer than one-in-ten Ukrainian refugees intend to settle permanently outside Ukraine, according to new research by the associate director of research and the director of gender and economic inclusion at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

Latest News

  1. Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support
  2. For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive
  3. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry
  4. India makes first objection to EU carbon levy at WTO summit
  5. Angry farmers block Brussels again, urge fix to 'unfair' prices
  6. Luxembourg denies blind spot on Nato security vetting
  7. Record rate-profits sees EU banks give shareholders €120bn
  8. Why the EU silence on why Orban's €10bn was unblocked?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us