Air poll-EU-tion: we are what we breathe

Air poll-EU-tion: we are what we breathe 28 novembre, 2017

Can you imagine living in a city where the simple fact of being there would mean smoking 4000 cigarettes yearly? Actually, maybe you do live in this city without even knowing it ! This is what we could learn from EU member states’ experts after the publication of the European Environment Agency’s report, last October. As for the UN environment’s report released to the public at the beginning of this month, it highlights the necessity of a worldwide effort to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals regarding climate change.

428 000 premature deaths on the European continent, 399 000 in the European Union

Based in Copenhagen and operational since 1994, the European Environment Agency (EEA) provides independent information about the environment, especially regarding 39 countries that are either members or simply collaborating with this EU agency. On October 11th, it published a report named “Air Quality in Europe” which presents  the results of a research lasting from 2000 to 2015 in 41 European countries. After a reminder on the main elements constituting air pollution (particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, benzopyrene) and on the main factors creating it like “non-road and road transport, the commercial, institutional and households sector, energy production and distribution, energy use in industry, industrial processes and product use, agriculture and waste” (EEA, 2017), the study presents the concrete impact of air pollution on the health of the European population. Unfortunately, there is no denying that the European Union cannot be taken as an example in this field. As for particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less, we discover that on 428 000 premature deaths in 2014, 399 000 happened within the 28 Member states. In this same geographical area, 75 000 premature deaths per year were due to Nitrogen dioxide and 13 600 to Ozone exposure.

Not a specific country to blame but a higher exposure to particulate matter and benzopyrene in CEE

Unfortunately, Poland is once again considered as the ugly duckling that has the worst air pollution in the European Union or to be more precise, the EU member state where there are the most years of life lost per 100 000 inhabitants. Indeed, especially because of its smog, “a mixture of gases that makes the atmosphere difficult to breathe and harmful for health” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2017), Poland counts approximately 48 000 deaths per year and living in Cracow is equivalent to smoke 4000 cigarettes yearly (, 2017). However, this is not surprising taking into consideration that the country is still using a lot of coal and noticing that the efforts made by current Polish decision makers are still too limited to have a real impact. In fact, in September, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish minister of finance and development, announced that money taken from the taxation of individual plastic bags will be dedicated to the struggle against smog and that nearly 10% of public buses will be zero-emission ones (, 2017). Nevertheless, this taxation will start only at 0,20 PLN per bag (0,05 euros) and the minister did not precise when the 10% of zero-emission bus are supposed to be operational.

But these appalling data about Poland refer only to the highest figure regarding the relation between years of life lost and  number of inhabitants. If we are looking only at the particulate matter emission without comparing it with the number of inhabitants, Germany, Italy and the United-Kingdom present much more premature deaths. Also, if we take into account only countries that are above the authorised exposure concentration for this air pollutant, this time the “worst” countries are Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria. To sum up, it is impossible to blame a particular country as you will find different results depending on which air pollutant you analyse and from what perspective you are analysing it. But one thing is sure, this remains a common problem that needs common solutions.

What do we do now?

Since 1980, the European Union has adopted 12 directives and 3 decisions related to air quality. They define, among others, limitations regarding the emission of some air pollutants and guarantee public information. At the individual level, obviously, the recommendations depend on the situation of every member state as the main sources of pollution vary from one country to another. Generally, EU citizens are encouraged to use public transportation services rather than their own cars, to not burn their waste and to check if their heating system complies with the European standards. But their biggest advantage is certainly their access to information. Eventually, now that applications were created almost everywhere to check instantly air quality within the European Union, citizens cannot say they are not aware of this issue anymore and somehow even have the duty to use these technological tools and opportunities to be active in this field so that decisions-makers will have no excuses and will have to act.


Alexia Fafara is studying for a Double Degree Programme in European Studies at Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland and the Institute of Political Studies in Strasbourg, France.

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