Air pollution at harmful levels in nine out of ten European cities

Government has yet to produce National Clean Air Strategy

Doctors who gathered earlier this week to protest in support of Extinction Rebellion  in  London to highlight deaths caused by air pollution.  Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Doctors who gathered earlier this week to protest in support of Extinction Rebellion in London to highlight deaths caused by air pollution. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire


Europe’s air is getting cleaner but nine out of 10 Europeans living in cities still breathe air which is harmful for their health, according to a European Environmental Agency (EEA) report.

In urban areas, particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) are causing the biggest harm – though ammonia arising from agriculture is also a growing threat.

According to an analysis published on Wednesday, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) alone caused about 412,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2016, 374,000 of which occurred in the EU.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that air pollution here is responsible for 1,510 premature deaths in Ireland annually.

As well as damaging health and reducing life expectancy, poor air quality causes economic losses, notably through higher healthcare costs, reduced agricultural yields and lower productivity.

However, the EEA report shows how binding regulations and local measures are improving Europe’s air quality with 17,000 fewer premature deaths from air pollution in the EU in 2016, compared with 2015.

Compared with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, long-term fine particulate matter concentrations were too high at 69 per cent of monitoring stations across Europe in 2017, including at least some monitoring stations in all reporting countries – Estonia, Finland and Norway being the exception.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Climate Action and Environment welcomed the report, “which overall reflects the position that Ireland has relatively good air quality when compared against other member states”.

She said this position was also reflected in the recent EPA air quality in Ireland report for 2018 which highlights “there were no exceedances of the EU limits for air pollutants”.

Work was currently continuing on the National Clean Air Strategy, she said, which would be “the first all of government response reducing air pollution and promoting cleaner air”. The climate action plan, published in June, includes actions which will reduce emissions and improving air quality.

Emeritus professor of chemistry at UCC John Sodeau said he was not surprised at the number of deaths in Europe from air pollution.

“It’s an uphill struggle. A lot more has to be done in Ireland,” he said.

Focus should not just be on urban areas but also on indoor pollution. The burning of solid domestic fuels was probably the biggest problem in Ireland.

Responding to the EEA findings, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said national actions were insufficient and too slow. Ireland was among 10 EU countries failing to deliver crucial air pollution control plans, it added.

Ireland submitted a draft programme in early April, pending completion of public consultation, the department spokeswoman said.

Data collected across Europe indicated most Europeans were still exposed to a level of air pollution far beyond the limits recommended by the WHO, said EEB air and noise policy officer Margherita Tolotto.

“Air pollution harms us all, but is particularly damaging for the most vulnerable: children, pregnant women and the elderly,” she said.

Prof Sodeau confirmed submissions were sought on Ireland’s clean air strategy over three years ago. Experts including himself were eventually asked for their comments on Ireland’s approach but were “fed up by delays in the process”.