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Air pollution 'invisible killer' in Europe

Chase Winter
October 30, 2018

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.

Image: Imago/Frank Sorge

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.

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.

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.

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.

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