Expert calls for lowering of emissions from industry, agriculture, energy creation, and UK domestic solid fuel burning
A Guardian investigation into air pollution has found that 98% of people in Europe live in areas that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for highly damaging fine particulate pollution. Experts say this pollution causes around 400,000 deaths annually.
WHO guidelines state that annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5µg/m3; however, the Guardian found only 2% of people live in areas within this limit. PM2.5 are tiny airborne particles produced by burning fossil fuels, from traffic, industry, domestic heating and agriculture. They can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and affect almost every organ in the body.
“This is a severe public health crisis,” said Roel Vermeulen, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where the research was conducted. “What we see quite clearly is that nearly everyone in Europe is breathing unhealthy air.”
European air pollution levels vary between countries. Three-quarters of the UK’s population is exposed to one to two times WHO guidelines, and almost a quarter over twice that. In Germany, 75% of people live in areas exceeding guidelines, whilst in Spain and France, 49% and 37% of people are exposed to double recommended levels.
The population of North Macedonia is most affected, with two-thirds exposed to over four times WHO guidelines. In contrast, nowhere in Sweden saw PM2.5 exceed twice recommended levels, while some areas of northern Scotland fall below it.
European Parliament recently voted to adopt WHO guidelines on PM2.5 by 2035, which would set a legally binding limit for annual concentrations of 5µg/m3, down from 25µg/m3 today. But experts say immediate action is needed as evidence shows air pollution is linked to a wide range of health issues, including heart and lung disease, cancer, diabetes, mental illnesses, cognitive impairment and low birth weight.
“These air pollutants, particularly the very small particles, can pass through the lung into the circulation,” explained Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, Special Advisor for Air Quality, Royal College of Physicians (RCP). “Air pollution can cross over the placenta into the foetal circulation…embedding in the heart, brain and liver of the foetus and we now know that these pollutants can alter the way organs develop.”
The RCP says the onus should be on polluters to take responsibility for harming health, whilst local authorities should act to protect public health. European cities, including London and Milan, are introducing ultra-low emissions zones, traffic reduction schemes and walking/cycling initiatives.
“It’s imperative that the UK work with its international partners to drive down PM2.5 sources across the board to create health benefits here in the UK.”
“It’s well known that PM2.5 levels are elevated across parts of Europe,” said Matthew Clark, Programme Manager – Air Quality at Hertfordshire County Council and member of the CIEH’s Environmental Protection Advisory Panel. “It’s imperative that the UK work with its international partners to drive down PM2.5 sources across the board to create health benefits here in the UK.”
Action is being taken to reduce emissions from different sources, including tailpipe emissions, but emissions from industry, agriculture, energy creation, and UK domestic solid fuel burning need to be lowered, Clark continued: “The need is clear; reduce population exposure to promote better health and reduce impact on our already stretched and vital health services…national, international and global leadership is required to create the scale and speed of change required to reduce the health burden on future generations.”
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