Air quality in Europe has improved between 1990 and 2009, as emissions of most pollutants have fallen, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). But there is still a lot of room for improvement, as many EU countries are expected to exceed the emissions ceilings in 2010 for at least one pollutant. In addition, concentration levels of ground-level ozone and particulate matter have remained stable over recent years despite efforts to improve air quality
Although emissions have fallen over the last two decades, this has not always led to a corresponding drop in pollutant concentrations in the air. This is particularly true in the case of particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone, as there is a complex relationship between emissions and air quality.
Ozone and PM are the most problematic pollutants for health, potentially causing or aggravating cardiovascular and lung diseases and leading to premature death. Eutrophication, an oversupply of nutrient nitrogen in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems is another major problem caused by air pollutants. Ammonia (NH3) from agriculture and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from combustion processes are now the main acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants, as sulphur pollution has fallen in recent years. Many air pollutants also contribute to climate change.
“Europe’s air quality is generally getting better, but concentrations of some pollutants are still endangering people’s health,” Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director, said. “To improve air quality further, we need to use many different kinds of policies and measures. These could include reducing emissions levels at source, better urban planning to reduce people’s exposure and lifestyle changes at the individual level.”
Key findings of the report
- Particulate matter: Twenty per cent of the EU urban population lives in areas where the EU air quality 24-hour limit value for PM10 concentration was exceeded in 2009. For the 32 member countries of the EEA, the estimate is 39 %. However, 80-90 % of the EU urban population is exposed to levels of PM10 which exceeded the more stringent World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines. This situation does not seem to be improving.
- Ozone: Ozone is not directly emitted but instead is the product of chemical reactions between other gases. Although man-made emissions of many of these ?precursors’ has declined, ozone levels did not fall significantly between 1999 and 2009.
- Approximately 17 % of European citizens live in areas where the EU target for ozone concentration was exceeded in 2009. If ozone levels are compared to the more stringent WHO guidelines, more than 95% of the EU urban population was exposed to ozone exceeding this level. About one third of the total arable land in the 32 EEA member countries was also exposed to levels of ozone above the EU target level.
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2): From 1999 to 2009, Europe cut SO2 levels by roughly 50 %, leading to declines in acid rain and reduced acidification. Very few EU urban citizens are exposed to levels of SO2 above the EU limit value, although 68-85 % of the EU urban population is potentially exposed to levels above the WHO guidelines.
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): Concentrations of NO2 have declined slightly in recent years. Exceedances occurred usually at hot-spots, such as main roads. Twelve per cent of the European urban population live in areas with urban background (non-traffic) concentrations of NO2 exceeding EU and WHO levels.
- Heavy metals: Atmospheric levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and nickel are generally low in Europe. However, heavy metal levels can build up in soils, sediments and organisms. Despite considerable cuts in emissions of heavy metals since 1990 in the EU, a significant proportion of European ecosystems are still at risk of heavy metal contamination.