Spotlight on air pollution in Europe

Think of air pollution these days and you probably think of China. In 2017 alone air pollution is estimated to have caused about 1.24 million deaths in China. But what about elsewhere?

Now, for the first time, a health impact study has estimated the mortality rate due to air pollution in more than 1,000 European cities. 

The study looked at two air pollutants: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which includes a mixture of solid and liquid elements such as dust, metals, cement and organic matter; and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas associated primarily with vehicle traffic. 

The study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that 51,000 and 9000 premature deaths, respectively, could be prevented each year if all cities analysed could achieve air quality levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. 

At the minimum, if all cities matched the air-quality levels of the least polluted city identified, even more deaths could be prevented. 

“We observed great variability in the results for the different cities analysed,” says lead author Sasha Khomenko, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Spain. 

The highest mortality rates from NO2 were found in large cities in countries such as Spain, Belgium, Italy and France. Cities with the highest mortality burden from PM2.5 were in Italy’s Po Valley, southern Poland and the eastern Czech Republic. 

“This is because suspended particulate matter is emitted not only by motor vehicles but also by other sources of combustion, including industry, household heating, and the burning of coal and wood,” explains Khomenko.

“The highest percentage of natural mortality that could be attributed to fine particulate matter was 15%, in the city of Brescia,” explains Khomenko. “With regard to nitrogen dioxide, the highest percentage – up to 7% of natural mortality – was found in the Madrid metropolitan area.”

While usually no one wants to see their city at the bottom of a ranking, the authors say northern European cities occupied a “privileged position”, with the lowest rates of mortality in both PM2.5 and NO2 rankings. 

“This is the first study to estimate the mortality burden attributable to air pollution at the city level in Europe,” says senior author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, from ISGlobal.

While the current European legislation on the maximum air pollution levels for NO2 meets WHO guidelines (40 µg/m3), it isn’t the case for PM2.5. Current legislation in EU member states sits at 25 µg/m3, while WHO guidelines recommend 10 µg/m3.

“Our findings support the evidence suggesting that there is no safe exposure threshold below which air pollution is harmless to health,” says Nieuwenhuijsen. “They also suggest that the European legislation currently in force does not do enough to protect people’s health.”

The rankings

The bad

The 10 cities with the highest mortality burden attributable to PM2.5:

1. Brescia (Italy)

2. Bergamo (Italy)

3. Karviná (Czech Republic)

4. Vicenza (Italy)

5. Silesian Metropolis (Poland)

6. Ostrava (Czech Republic)

7. Jastrzębie-Zdrój (Poland)

8. Saronno (Italy)

9. Rybnik (Poland)

10. Havířov (Czech Republic)

The 10 cities with the highest mortality burden attributable to NO2:

1. Madrid (metro area) (Spain)

2. Antwerp (Belgium)

3. Turin (Italy)

4. Paris (metro area) (France)

5. Milan (metro area) (Italy)

6. Barcelona (metro area) (Spain)

7. Mollet del Vallès (Spain)

8. Brussels (Belgium)

9. Herne (Germany)

10. Argenteuil-Bezons (France)

The good

The 10 cities with the lowest mortality burden attributable to PM2.5:

1. Reykjavík (Iceland)

2. Tromsø (Norway)

3. Umeå (Sweden)

4. Oulu (Finland)

5. Jyväskylä (Finland)

6. Uppsala (Sweden)

7. Trondheim (Norway)

8. Lahti (Finland)

9. Örebro (Sweden)

10. Tampere (Finland)

The 10 cities with the lowest mortality burden attributable to NO2:

1. Tromso (Norway)

2. Umeå (Sweden)

3. Oulu (Finland)

4. Kristiansand (Norway)

5. Pula (Croatia)

6. Linköping (Sweden)

7. Galway (Ireland)

8. Jönköping (Sweden)

9. Alytus (Lithuania)

10. Trondheim (Norway)

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