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Air pollution is largest environmental health risk in Europe.

September 14, 2023

Fine particulate matter above 2021 WHO guideline causes 238,000 deaths in 27 EU Member States

PM2,5. The invisible killer

Fine particulate matter, commonly referred to as PM 2.5, is a silent and pervasive threat to public health, particularly in Europe and France. These tiny particles, measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller, are so minuscule that they can easily penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing a range of severe health problems. In recent years, PM 2.5-related deaths have become a significant concern, prompting extensive research and action to combat this invisible killer.

Studies have consistently highlighted the detrimental health effects of PM 2.5 exposure. These tiny particles can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, and they are linked to heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer. According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), PM 2.5 was responsible for an estimated 238,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2020 alone.

  • In 2020, air pollution led to a significant number of premature deaths in the 27 EU Member States (EU-27). Exposure to concentrations of fine particulate matter above the 2021 World Health Organization guideline level resulted in 238,000 premature deaths; exposure to nitrogen dioxide above the respective guideline level led to 49,000 premature deaths. Acute exposure to ozone caused 24,000 premature deaths.
  • The zero pollution action plan aims to reduce the number of premature deaths due to exposure to fine particulate matter by 55% by 2030, compared to 2005. In 2020, the number of premature deaths attributable to exposure to fine particulate matter above the WHO guideline level fell by 45% in the EU-27, compared to 2005. If this rate of decline is maintained, the EU will reach the aforementioned zero pollution action plan target before 2030
  • Further efforts will be needed to meet the zero pollution vision for 2050 of reducing air pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to health
  • Besides premature death, air pollution also causes morbidity. People live with diseases related to exposure to air pollution; this is a burden in terms of personal suffering as well as significant costs on the health care sector. In 2019, exposure to PM2.5 led to 175,702 years lived with disability (YLDs) due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 30 European countries. At the same time, exposure to NO2 led to 175,070 YLDs due to diabetes mellitus (also known as Type 2 diabetes) in 31 European countries. That same year, 12,253 people across 23 European countries were admitted to the hospital with lower respiratory infections resulting from acute exposure to ozone.

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