EU countries could save 238,000 lives a year by meeting WHO air pollution guidelines

Approximately 238,000 air pollution deaths could be avoided each year if the EU27 countries actually met World Health Organization guidelines for air pollution, according to figures from the European Environment Agency. And more than 400,000 deaths could be avoided if particle air pollution could be avoided completely.

On 20 February the EU Council agreed new legislation for clean air for 2030 and beyond. As EU countries work towards these new legal limits, a new study has estimated the benefits that could quickly arise with reductions in air pollution from traffic and home heating.

The academics looked at 41 European countries. They found that a 20% drop in road traffic pollution could reduce annual excess deaths across Europe by about 7,000 people a year by decreasing particle pollution. Germany tops the chart with potential decreases of more than 1,000 deaths annually; for the UK and Italy, it would be more than 500. These estimates were based on air pollution and health statistics from 2015.

A 20% decrease in air pollution from home heating would yield approximately 13,000 fewer deaths each year. East and central Europe would benefit most, due to high use of solid fuel for heating. Germany, Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Turkey would experience more than 1,000 fewer deaths each and the UK would sustain more than 650 fewer deaths.

The new study also showed that more than half of the benefits would come from fewer deaths from heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes, as well as lung-cancer.

Greater ambition would yield even bigger health outcomes.

Dr Niki Paisi, who was part of the study team at the Climate and Atmosphere Research Center at the Cyprus Institute, said: “Of the excess deaths in Europe that are attributed to long-term exposure to particle pollution, 26% and 12% of these can be avoided if residential combustion and road-transport emissions are phased out, respectively. Countries like the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary and Poland could experience higher benefits from a phase-out, given that these two sectors contribute together to nearly 50% of the particle pollution mortality in these countries.”

These sectors are the focus of net zero strategies, so there are clearly opportunities from optimising our air pollution and climate policies for maximum health benefits.

And what about deaths from other sources of particle pollution?

Published in 2023, a study from Barcelona’s ISGlobal research institute sheds some light on this and can help national and especially city governments to understand which polluting sectors they should prioritise.

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Prof Mark Nieuwenhuijsen from ISGlobal explained: “Cities are still hotspots of air pollution and premature deaths. Urgent action is needed. This requires a holistic approach bringing together many different sectors including energy, transport, industry and agriculture.”

Nieuwenhuijsen’s team have produced an online tool that allows the public, city authorities and governments to interrogate the research database and to visualise the harm from the different pollution sources in their area.

Many of us in the UK and in countries bordering the North Sea may be surprised to see shipping listed as a substantial source of particle pollution. For large areas of north-west Europe, including much of the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, agriculture is one of the largest sources of early deaths from particle pollution, alongside transport and home heating. This receives little public and political attention, and solutions from farmers are rarely included in air pollution plans. Figures released by the UK government in mid-February highlight the need for more action with slow or no progress in reducing air pollution from farms and home heating with solid fuels.


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