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Inequities persist in air pollution exposure across European Union cities
The new State of Global Air European Union Regional Air Quality Snapshot finds that air quality remains a concern in cities across the European Union (EU). This new data comes at a time when proposals to tighten the EU Air Quality Limit Values are in discussion; the proposed standards are also aligned more closely to the 2021 World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines.
Our data, as well as recent reports from the European Environment Agency, find large variations in air pollution and its impacts on health within and across cities in the EU. While cities in Western and Northern Europe largely experience good air quality, cities in Central and Eastern Europe including Krakow and Katowice (Poland), Plovdiv (Bulgaria), and Budapest (Hungary) often experience PM2.5 levels that are several times higher than the guideline value recommended by the WHO. According to our data, some cities in the region, namely Tychy, Katowice, Krakow, Rybnik, Czestochowa, and Opole (Poland) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria) did not meet the EU Limit Value for PM2.5 (25 µg/m3) in 2019. Higher levels of air pollution in cities in the region is linked to the high reliance on coal and solid fuels for domestic heating, older vehicles, and in many cases, older, power production and industrial facilities. Cities in Central and Eastern Europe also experience disproportionately high disease burden from PM2.5 exposures.
However, there are distinct differences when we compare levels of PM2.5 and NO2 across EU cities. Tracking NO2 pollution draws attention to air quality concerns in cities that are not necessarily PM2.5 hotspots. Globally, we have seen that PM2.5 pollution tends to be highest in cities in low- and middle-income countries, whereas NO2 levels are high in large cities across countries of all income levels. The patterns are similar in the EU. Larger, more populous cities including Paris (France) and Barcelona (Spain), often with greater numbers of vehicles, experience high NO2 levels, even with typically lower PM2.5. In contrast, while PM2.5 levels are consistently higher for cities in Central and Eastern Europe, some of them have lower NO2 levels compared to cities in Western and Northern Europe.
Risk factors for poor health in Europe
Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for poor health in Europe. Exposure to air pollution is linked to increased hospitalizations, disability, and early death from lung and heart diseases, stroke, lung cancer, and diabetes, as well as communicable diseases like pneumonia. Exposure among pregnant women is linked to poor health outcomes among newborns, including a higher risk of premature birth and low birth weight. Traffic-related air pollution has been linked with asthma onset in children and adults, acute lower respiratory infections in children and lung cancer mortality. These health impacts lead to missed school and work, chronic illness, and death, affecting families, communities, and economies.
Latest HEI evidence finds effects at levels well below the current EU standards.
A recent HEI-funded study of nearly 25 million residents across 11 countries in Europe reported that even at very low concentrations, including concentrations below the current EU limit values, long-term exposure to air pollution (i.e., exposure over many years) is linked to poor health.
The data show clearly that additional air quality action is a critical step towards ensuring clean air and good health for all across EU member countries. While not discussed in detail here, non-EU member countries, e.g., Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, also experience high levels of air pollution and present another major challenge toward cleaner air in Europe.
There is good news in many cities — levels of air pollutants including PM2.5 and NO2 have declined over time. Targeted policies are being implemented including promotion of clean energy for domestic and industrial use, expansion of low emission zones in urban areas, and programs to increase the adoption of heat pumps and other efficient residential heating options. Promotion of electric mobility, clean energy and expanded public transportation are all gaining traction in many cities’ efforts to address air quality. Continued progress will require collaborative engagement across governments, researchers, civil society, and other interested parties, including reviewing current air quality standards in the EU with the goal of clean air and good health for all.