Why is air pollution so harmful?
Air pollution has harmful effects to human health and to the environment, harming people living in both urban and rural areas. Air pollution levels are not solely linked to industrial development, traffic and consumption patterns, but also to agriculture and farming. Air pollution is also mobile: pollutants released in one country may be transported in the atmosphere, contributing to or resulting in poor air quality elsewhere.
In its report on the quality of the air in Europe in 2014, the European Environment Agency (EEA) found that in urban areas between 64 and 98% of the population are exposed to pollution levels that are above the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines (and about 30% above EU limits).
Outdoor air pollution is the number one environmental cause of premature death in the EU, responsible for ten times toll of road traffic accidents. The Global Burden of Disease Study (2010) showed that over 430,000 premature deaths occurred and over 7 million years of healthy life were lost in Western, Central and Eastern Europe from exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) like a fine dust emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, households, and natural sources such as sea salt, wind-blown soil and sand.
The effect of air pollution on health has considerable economic impacts, cutting lives short, increasing medical costs, and reducing productivity through working days lost across the economy. The European Commission estimates that in 2010, the total damage costs of air pollution’s health impacts accounted for EUR 330 billion to 940 billion. Direct economic damage includes EUR 15 billion from workdays lost and EUR 4 billion in healthcare costs.
Effects of air pollution in human health
Short-term effects of air pollution are particularly affecting patients with respiratory diseases. Asthmatics suffer more on or after days with higher pollution levels as air pollution reduces lung function, irritates nose and throat, causes wheezing, coughing, pain when taking a deep breath and breathing difficulties and more in general, it aggravates the symptoms of patients already affected by these diseases.
Long-term effects of air pollution exposure include changes in mortality patterns and diseases incidence and prevalence. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO IARC) concluded in 2013 that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, as the particulate matter component of air pollution can be closely associated with increased cancer incidence, especially lung cancer. The APHEKOM (Improving Knowledge and Communication for Decision Making on Air Pollution and Health in Europe) study found out that living near polluted roads could be responsible for an estimate 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children; and of COPD in adults 65 years and above.
Air pollution is one of our areas of work and we advocate for:
- Ambitious emission reduction commitments in the revised NEC Directive;
- Enforcement and strengthening of EU’s ambient air quality limit values in line with WHO recommended levels.
Our advocacy activities on air pollution are voiced and supported by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), an EU umbrella organisation of which we are full members, and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a partner organisation.
EFA’s documents and activities in air pollution
- Joint 76 NGOs letter to EU trilogue on NEC discussions - February 2016
- Joint 60 NGOs letter to ENVI Commitee with recommendations on NEC revision - July 2015
- EFA and EAACI Joint Press Release: Environment targets should meet health priorities at the European Parliament – July2015
- EFA and EAACI joint Press Release: Patients and doctors urge to put EU air quality policy back on the agenda – December 2014
- Letter to Commission President Juncker on the EU Clean Air Policy Package – November 2014
- Presentation Empowering the most vulnerable groups – How can you fight against air pollution? – Green Week (05/06/2013)
- Letter to ENVI on the 7 EAP – April 2013
- NGO priorities for the review of the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution – March 2013
- Response to the European Commission Public Consultation on EU Air Policy – March 2013
- Briefing on the Commission’s proposal for the Seventh EU Environment Action Programme – February 2013
- Letter on the Ambient Air Quality Directive – April 2012
- Response to the European Commission Public Consultation on EU Adaptation Strategy – August 2012