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Air pollution cut short 307,000 lives across the EU

EEA report shows that thousands of lives could have been saved if PM targets had been met, but that the EU is now on track to reach European Green Deal target
24 November 2021 , By Katie Coyne

Air pollution cost 307,000 lives prematurely across the EU and more than half of these, or 178,000 lives, could have been saved by meeting World Health Organisation (WHO) targets on fine particulate matter (PM) pollution. 

A European Environment Agency (EEA) analysis looked at how fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground level ozone affected the health of Europeans in 2019, as well as the potential benefits of improved air quality. (Air pollution improved in 2019, from the previous year).

The ‘Health impacts of air pollution in Europe’ analysis also measured progress towards the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan (which does not include the UK due to Brexit) concerned with reducing air, water, and soil pollution. As part of the European Green Deal, the action plan sets a target to reduce premature deaths due to fine particulate matter by more than 55% by 2030. The EEA analysis found that the EU was “on track’ to reach this target.

Common causes of premature death from air pollution are heart disease and stroke, followed by lung disease and lung cancer.

These top line figures do not include deaths from the UK. However, the full report briefing does include this data. It concluded that, in 2019, exposure to PM2.5 (a category of particulate pollutant that is 2.5 microns or smaller in size, and can therefore bypass many of our body’s defences) was linked to 33,100 premature deaths, and 355,900 years of life lost across the UK.

“Even with improvements in air quality over the past years in our region, we still have a long way to go to achieve the levels in the new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines.”

WHO regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P Kluge said: “To breathe clean air should be a fundamental human right. It is a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. 

“Even with improvements in air quality over the past years in our region, we still have a long way to go to achieve the levels in the new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines.” 

EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx said: “Investing in cleaner heating, mobility, agriculture and industry delivers better health, productivity and quality of life for all Europeans and especially for the most vulnerable. These investments save lives and also help accelerate progress towards carbon neutrality and strong biodiversity.”

The CIEH has been working with the Healthy Air Campaign (HAC) coalition of charities that supported a Lords’ amendment in the Environment Bill that would have meant the UK government committed to the WHO 2005 guidelines on PM2.5, but these were rejected. The WHO 2005 guidelines were updated in September 2021, and the allowed levels halved.

Tamara Sandoul, policy and campaigns manager at CIEH said rejecting even these lower standards was “a failure” to protect public health and a “missed opportunity” to contribute to net zero.

She added: “The new WHO guidelines highlighted how harmful air quality is to human health, with the guidelines for PM2.5 being lowered to half the previously considered ‘safe level’.”

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