Fine particle air pollution led to 238,000 premature deaths in the European Union (EU) in 2020, the bloc’s environmental watchdog said on Thursday 24 November – a slight rise from the previous year.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) said that across the EU in 2020:
exposure to concentrations of fine particulate matter above the 2021 World Health Organization guideline level resulted in 238,000 premature deaths.
That was slightly more than those recorded in 2019 in the EU, despite a fall in emissions due to coronavirus (Covid-19). Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is a term for fine particulates that are typically the by-product of car exhausts or coal-fired power plants. Their tiny size enables them to travel deep into the respiratory tract, worsening the risk of bronchitis, asthma and lung disease.
Also in 2020, exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) above the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) recommended threshold led to 49,000 premature deaths in the EU, the EEA said. Acute exposure to ozone (O3) caused 24,000 people to die early. The agency said:
When comparing 2020 to 2019, the number of premature deaths attributable to air pollution increased for PM2.5 but decreased for NO2 and O3.
For PM 2.5, falls in concentrations were counteracted by an increase in deaths due to the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic led to the deaths of some people already living with diseases related to air pollution.
The EU wants to slash premature deaths related to fine particulate matter pollution by 55 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Overall, the rate for EU countries in 2020 was 45 percent lower than in 2005. The agency also said:
If this rate of decline is maintained, the EU will reach the aforementioned zero pollution action plan target before 2030.
According to the WHO, air pollution causes seven million premature deaths per year worldwide, putting it on par with smoking or poor diets.
In the UK, however, there are further complications for cutting down levels of air pollution. As the Canary’s Tracy Keeling reported earlier this month, environmental charity ClientEarth noted that:
the World Health Organization (WHO) overhauled its pollution guidelines in 2021. The WHO said that it set the current limit to protect the public from the health impacts of NO2, which epidemiological studies have shown to include “bronchitis in asthmatic children” and lower “lung function growth”.
However, these guidelines aren’t used in the UK:
The environmental charity said that the UK’s current legal limit for this gas is four times higher than the WHO guidelines. Its analysis showed that this places all 43 air pollution zones above the annual level the WHO recommends.
Regulations that would previously have been covered by our membership in the EU will now need to be covered by our own legislation.
Katy Nield, a lawyer for ClientEarth, said:
Instead of putting forward plans to get to grips with this public health crisis, ministers are presenting a deeply worrying Bill in Parliament which could rip out the legal protections in our statute book.
Featured image by Unsplash/Daniel Moqvist
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse