The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) reanalysis shows the average PM2.5 surface concentrations for 2003–2022 and the anomalies (absolute differences) in 2022 compared with the mean values for 2003–2022. Source: European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF)/CAMS. Source: World Meteorological Organization

Study Finds 98% Of Europeans At Risk From High Levels Of Fine Particulates

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Fine particulates are atmospheric particles less than 2.5 microns in size. A micron is one millionth of a meter. Mostly they are a residue from burning fossil fuels, but they also can come from tires and brake pads as they wear. Because they are so small, they can cross directly into the bloodstream in human lungs. They then circulate throughout the body and lodge in our brains, hearts, livers, kidneys, gonads, and other vital organs.

The World Health Organization says the safe level for fine particulates — often referred to as PM2.5 — is 5 micrograms per cubic meter. A study conducted by The Guardian and the Expanse program found 98% of Europeans are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than is considered safe. Those elevated pollution levels are linked to as many as 400,000 deaths all across Europe each year.

That estimate may be conservative. One recent study found air pollution was responsible for 1 million stillbirths a year. Another found that young people living in cities already have billions of toxic air pollution particles lodged in their hearts.

Cutting Edge Technology

The data was compiled by academics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute as part of the EU-funded Expanse project. On its website, the Expanse program outlines its mission as follows:

“By 2030 more than 80% of Europe’s population will live and interact with a complex urban environment, consisting of a mixture of social and environmental factors. Individually or collectively these factors, known as the Urban Exposome, have an often modifiable impact on our health and provide important targets to improve population health. Expanse will address one of the most pertinent questions for urban planners, policy makers, and inhabitants in Europe — How to maximize one’s health in a modern urban environment?”

The Guardian research used the latest methodology available, including detailed satellite images and measurements from more than 1,400 ground monitoring stations. It reveals a dire picture of dirty air, with 98% of people living in areas with highly damaging fine particulate pollution levels that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. Almost two-thirds live in areas where air quality is more than double the WHO’s guidelines.

We are not at liberty to feature the interactive map of Europe created by The Guardian, but we can link to it so our readers can view it for themselves. It’s really a very powerful presentation.

Eastern Europe Suffers The Most Pollution

The worst hit country in Europe is North Macedonia, where almost two thirds of the people live in areas with more than four times the WHO guidelines for PM2.5. Four areas were found to have air pollution that is almost six times higher, including the capitol city of Skopje.

Eastern Europe is significantly worse than western Europe, apart from Italy where more than a third of those living in the Po valley and surrounding areas in the north of the country breathe air that is four times the WHO guideline.

“This is a severe public health crisis,” said Roel Vermeulen, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Utrecht University who led the researcher team. “What we see quite clearly is that nearly everyone in Europe is breathing unhealthy air. This is the best data that there is available at the moment. Now we need politicians to be bold and ambitious and take the necessary urgent steps to tackle this crisis.”

The researchers found that:

  • Almost all residents in seven countries in eastern Europe — Serbia, Romania, Albania, North Macedonia, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary — have double the WHO guidance.
  • More than half the population of North Macedonia and Serbia live with four times the WHO figure.
  • In Germany, three-quarters of the population lives with more than twice the WHO guidance. In Spain that figure is 49%, and in France it is 37%.
  • In the UK, three-quarters of the population live in areas where exposure is between one and two times the WHO guidance, with almost a quarter more than two times over that limit.
  • Close to 30 million Europeans are living in areas with small particle concentrations that are at least four times the WHO guidelines.
  • In Sweden, by contrast, there is no area where PM2.5 reaches more than twice the WHO figure, and some areas in northern Scotland are among the few across Europe that fall below it.

Last week, the European parliament voted to adopt the WHO guidelines on PM2.5 by 2035. The law, which must still be finalized in negotiations with the council, will set a legally binding limit for annual PM2.5 concentrations of 5µg/mg. That’s down from 25µg/m3 today.

But experts say urgent action needs to be taken now. They point to a growing body of evidence that shows air pollution affects almost every organ in the body and is linked to a wide range of health problems from heart and lung disease to cancer, diabetes, depression, mental illness, cognitive impairment, and low birth weight.

Dr. Hanna Boogaard, an expert on air pollution in Europe at the US Health Effects Institute, told The Guardian the new analysis was crucial to help inform the debate about air pollution and its effects throughout Europe which include hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

She told The Guardian, “These deaths are preventable and the estimate does not include millions of cases of non-fatal diseases, years lived with disability, attributable hospitalizations, or health effects from other pollutants.” She added that the move to strengthen PM2.5 regulations is “a unique opportunity to be bold … and maximize public health benefits for Europe and beyond.”

Environmental Justice

Other research has shown that within countries, poorer communities are more likely to live in areas with the worst air pollution. Barbara Hoffmann, professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Düsseldorf, said air pollution was an issue of “environmental injustice.”

“The countries that are hit most are also the countries with the lowest mean income, with a few notable exceptions — this illustrates the degree of environmental injustice we are experiencing in the EU. Cleaning up the air specifically in eastern Europe is urgently needed to provide equal opportunities for a healthy life across Europe.”

The findings of the study present one of the most accurate and comprehensive pictures of air pollution across the continent to date.

The Takeaway

Global heating has become another flash point in the incessant culture wars that are ricocheting around the planet. Millions of people seem to be cheering as the ice caps melt and destructive wildfires sweep across the land. But there is no human instinct more powerful than the desire to create a family.

Limiting PM2.5 pollution by definition means reducing the use of fossil fuels. Maybe if people come to understand that these pollutants interfere with procreation and the health of their progeny, more of them would embrace taking stronger action to address the threat posed by fine particulate pollution.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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