Europe is confronting a "significant public health crisis," with nearly 70% of the population across the continent residing in regions plagued by hazardous levels of air pollution, as per an investigation by The Guardian.
In-depth analysis of data, which employs state-of-the-art techniques such as detailed satellite imagery and readings from over 1,400 ground monitoring stations, paints a grim picture of polluted air. It's revealed that approximately 70% of the people live in areas characterized by highly detrimental fine particulate pollution levels that surpass the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Almost 45% of individuals inhabit areas where air quality is more than double the WHO's recommended standards. North Macedonia is the country most severely affected by air pollution in Europe. Approximately 60% of its population resides in areas where levels of PM2.5 pollutants exceed WHO guidelines by over four times.
In certain regions, including the capital, Skopje, air pollution is nearly six times the recommended limit.
Eastern Europe is notably worse off compared to western Europe, with the exception of Italy, where over a third of individuals residing in the Po Valley and surrounding regions in the north of the country inhale air with PM2.5 levels four times higher than the WHO's threshold for the most dangerous airborne particles.
The Guardian collaborated with pollution experts to create an interactive map highlighting the worst affected areas on the continent. The measurements are related to PM2.5, which refers to tiny airborne particles primarily produced by the combustion of fossil fuels.
Some of these particles can infiltrate the bloodstream through the lungs, affecting nearly every organ in the body. WHO guidelines recommend that annual average PM2.5 concentrations should not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).
The new analysis found that only 30% of Europe's population resides in areas that meet these limits. Experts estimate that PM2.5 pollution causes approximately 400,000 deaths annually across the continent. Roel Vermeulen, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Utrecht University who led the research team, stated, "This is a significant public health crisis.
What is evident is that nearly 70% of Europe's population is breathing unhealthy air."
The data also reveals the following:
- Nearly all residents in seven eastern European countries—Serbia, Romania, Albania, North Macedonia, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary—experience pollution levels that are double the WHO's recommended standards.
- In Germany, three-quarters of the population lives in areas with pollution levels more than double the WHO guidelines.
- In Spain, this figure is 49%, and in France, it's 37%.
- In the UK, 75% of the population resides in areas where pollution levels are between one and two times the WHO recommendations, with nearly 25% exceeding this limit by more than two times.
- Close to 30 million Europeans live in areas where PM2.5 concentrations are at least four times the WHO guidelines.
- In Sweden, there are no areas where PM2.5 levels exceed twice the WHO threshold, and some regions in northern Scotland fall below this limit
- PM2.5 pollution primarily originates from sources like traffic, industry, domestic heating, and agriculture, and its adverse effects disproportionately impact the most economically disadvantaged communities.
The European Parliament recently voted in favor of adopting WHO guidelines for PM2.5 by 2035, which would establish a legally binding limit of 5µg/m3 for annual PM2.5 concentrations, down from the current 25µg/m3.
However, experts stress the need for immediate action. There is a mounting body of evidence linking air pollution to a wide range of health problems, from heart and lung diseases to cancer, diabetes, mental health issues, cognitive impairment, and low birth weight.
Recent studies have even linked air pollution to one million stillbirths per year and the presence of billions of toxic particles in the hearts of young people living in cities. Dr. Hanna Boogaard, an air pollution expert in Europe at the US Health Effects Institute, emphasized the importance of this new analysis in informing the debate about air pollution's devastating effects, which she attributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths annually.
She noted, "These deaths are preventable, and the estimate does not account for millions of cases of non-fatal diseases, years of disability, hospitalizations, or the health effects of other pollutants."