Atmospheric pollution: an increasing public health problem in Europe

Luís Martins
METRICS, University of Minho

In the last 30 years most of the EU policies towards gaseous emissions were focused on the reduction of Greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. The effect of the major air pollutants on human health was repeatedly neglected. This resulted in poor air quality in most of the European cities that led to air pollution currently being the 3rd cause of death in the EU.  According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), air pollution is causing around 500,000 premature deaths in Europe every year.

The premature deaths are due to two key pollutants, fine particulates PM2.5s and the toxic NOx gases (nitrogen oxides). People in urban areas are especially at risk, with around 85% exposed to fine particulate matter PM2.5 at levels deemed harmful by the World Health Organization (WHO). These particles are too small to see or smell, but have a devastating impact and can cause or aggravate heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. The main cause of poor air quality is urban traffic and the high percentage of Diesel vehicles in Europe.

After a description of the main GHGs by importance, the presentation follows with a summary of the main atmospheric pollutants. Relevance is given to CO, NOx, particulate matter - associated to POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and heavy metals – and radon gas. The wrong public perception that CO2 is harmful to the human health is highlighted.

The European Dieselgate is presented where it is shown that the EU certification of car emissions (currently under review) has no credibility and led to conflicts among institutions: the main European cities are now struggling to fulfil the air quality standards and being subjected to large EU fines!

During more than 30 years the EU has been incentivizing Diesel cars, supposedly for the reduction of CO2 emissions, which resulted in the above mentioned public health scandal. In fact, already in 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC - which is part of the WHO), classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans of Group 1 (the worse group), based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer. This indicates that Diesel fumes are two orders of magnitude worse than the corresponding emissions from gasoline engines.

The work concludes that the fastest way to improve air quality in urban areas is by changing from Diesel vehicles towards gasoline, LPG or NG hybrid electric vehicles followed by fully electric mobility.

The transformation towards electric mobility should start in the urban transport system. Nevertheless, in terms of CO2 emissions and other pollutants, Well-to-Wheel and Live Cycle Analysis (LCA) should be taken into account. The rapid renovation from general Diesel vehicles to Natural Gas hybrid vehicles should be implemented in the short term for long-range transportation.

In some European countries (e.g. Portugal) the effect of the Radon gas ground/building emissions on public health seems to be relevant and should be further investigated.

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