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Air pollution blamed for 400,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2016 alone

Around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in Europe in 2016 as a result of air pollution, according to new figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The EEA, which is an EU agency, said that while air quality on the continent is improving, almost all Europeans living in cities are still exposed to air pollution levels that exceed the health-based air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The EEA also warned about the economic damage that air pollution can inflict from higher healthcare costs and reduced yields from agriculture and forestry.

“Air pollution is currently the most important environmental risk to human health,” the EEA said in the report.

The report’s author, EEA air quality expert Alberto González Ortiz, said that while the level of dangerous particles in European cities was dropping, it was not dropping fast enough.

“We have not yet reached the EU standards and of course we are far from reaching the WHO (World Health Organisation) standards,” Ortiz said.

Last week, mayors from 35 major cities around the world including London, Barcelona, Lisbon and Berlin signed a pledge to deliver clean air for the combined 140 million people that live in their cities.

The EEA said particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) cause the most harm. These are typically released from vehicle exhausts and are particularly prevalent in emissions from diesel vehicles. About 17,000 fewer premature deaths were caused by PM in the EU in 2016, compared with 2015.

Compared with the 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 except Estonia, Finland and Norway.

EU law currently requires countries to assess the level, notably in urban areas, of a range of pollutants, including ozone and particulate matter, and take action if certain limits are hit.

The EU’s top court ruled in June that cities needed to act if pollution levels were exceeded in a single black spot rather than based on an average across a region.

“Europe has now a unique opportunity to set an ambitious agenda that tackles the systemic causes of environmental pressures and air pollution. We are making progress, but it’s time to speed up the changes in our energy, food and mobility systems to put us on a trajectory of sustainability and a healthy environment,” said Hans Bruyninckx, executive director, EEA.

Earlier this week, the UK Government introduced a new Environment Bill that will include a framework to put long-term legal targets in place on air and water quality.

Among the measures in the draft legislation being introduced are plans for a legally binding target to reduce air pollutant PM2.5, which refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (approximately 3 per cent the diameter of a single human hair).

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