Air quality

Some 87% of Europeans consider that respiratory disease related to poor air quality is a serious problem in their country. Given that even short-term increases in air pollution have been associated with respiratory symptoms and temporary decreases in lung function, there appears to be good reason for their concern. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), air pollution will be the biggest environmental cause of premature death by 2050. Millions of Europeans live in areas where simply breathing the air around them is damaging to their health. The effects should not be underestimated. Air pollution can reduce lifespan and cause serious heart and lung disease. It is estimated that poor air quality in Europe leads to an average loss of 8.6 months’ of life expectancy. The pollutants of most concern for human health across Europe are airborne particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3). Inhalation of PM causes irritation and damage to the lungs. Excessive O 3 in the air triggers asthma, reduces lung function, causes breathing problems and even causes lung disease. Short-term exposure to NO2 is associated with reduced lung function and airway responsiveness to natural allergens (see chapter 6). These pollutants increase the death rate, especially in sensitive population groups such as the elderly, or those suffering from respiratory ailments. Recent studies show that in times of high air pollution there is a marked increase in hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Despite these health impacts, current EU legislation allows for higher levels of damaging pollutants than those recommended by the WHO.

  • European countries must support the implementation of the WHO recommended air quality guidelines for outdoor and indoor air – through an ambitious revision of limit values for ambient air pollution.

  • European countries should reinforce their efforts to reduce source pollution from all sectors – industrial, transport and energy.

  • European countries should make air quality an integral part of their transport, industrial and energy policies and ensure that the correct level of governance – national, regional or local – is equipped to tackle sources of pollution. States also need to improve cooperation on cross-border pollution and ultimately must undertake to implement and enforce air quality legislation.

See the entire Recommendations and policy Chapter