Europe faces a “severe public health crisis” with dangerous levels of pollution across the continent, according to an investigation by the Guardian newspaper.
As many as 98% of Europeans live in areas with “highly damaging fine particulate pollution” that exceeds guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Almost two-thirds live where air quality is more than twice WHO guidelines, says the Guardian.
The data was gathered from satellite images and from over 1,400 monitoring stations on the ground.
Worst hit is North Macedonia, where almost two-thirds of residents live in areas with more than four times the WHO guidelines, while four regions were found to have air pollution nearly six times the WHO guidelines, including the capital Skopje.
Eastern Europe is significantly worse hit than western Europe.
The situation in Italy, however, is dire. More than one third of those in the Po valley and environs in the north live in air four times the WHO guidelines.
The atmospheric concentration of PM2.5 – small airborne particles from the combustion of fossil fuels – was tracked. Some are small enough to pass through the lungs, into the bloodstream, reaching major organs.
Average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). But only 2% of Europeans live in areas that are below this guideline.
Traffic, industry, heating and agriculture are the main sources of PM2.5, and often disproportionately in the poorest communities.
PM2.5 pollution causes about 400,000 deaths a year across the continent, said experts cited by the Guardian.
“This is a severe public health crisis,” Roel Vermeulen, professor of environmental epidemiology at Utrecht University and who led the team of researchers across the continent that compiled the data, told the Guardian. “What we see quite clearly is that nearly everyone in Europe is breathing unhealthy air.”
Almost all residents in seven countries in eastern Europe – Albania, Hungary, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia – have twice the WHO guidelines.
More than 50% of residents in North Macedonia and Serbia live with four times the WHO’s guidelines.
In Germany, three-quarters of the population lives with more than twice the WHO guidelines. In Spain, it is 49%, and in France the proportion is 37%.
Three-quarters of the UK’s population lives where exposure is up to twice the WHO guidelines, with almost 25% with more than twice the limit.
In fact, close to 30mn Europeans are living in areas with concentrations of small particles at least four times WHO guidance.
But in Sweden, nowhere does the PM2.5 particles in the air figure reach more than twice the WHO guidance. Some areas in northern Scotland are below it.
Traffic, industry, domestic heating and agriculture are the main sources of PM2.5 and the impact is often felt disproportionately by the poorest communities.
Earlier this month, the European parliament voted to adopt the WHO guidelines on PM2.5 – but not until 2035. The law would establish a legally binding limit for annual average PM2.5 concentrations of 5µg/m3, a decrease from today’s 25µg/m3.