European cities could avoid up to 114,000 deaths from pollution each year

A study by the Barcelona Global Health Institute has reached this conclusion in accordance with new WHO recommendations on air quality in European cities

Quim Riera
2 min
Pollution kills a thousand people a year in Barcelona

European cities could avoid 114,000 premature deaths each year if they complied with the new air quality recommendations presented by the World Health by the World Health Organization (WHO) in September 2021. A study conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has compared the impact of the new recommendations with those in force since 2005 and which, according to previous studies, already prevented up to 51,000 deaths per year in European cities if they were complied with.

With the tightening of pollution limits, which were updated precisely to reduce the seven million annual deaths caused by pollution on the planet, a new assessment has been made of the mortality attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2,5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the same 1,000 European cities included in the original study. The results of the study have been published in a letter in The Lancet Planetary Health, while the city-specific results have been published on the ISGlobal Cities Ranking website.

TThe study concludes that if the new WHO recommendations for the lowest observed PM2.5 and NO2 levels are achieved, 125,000 and 79,000 premature deaths could be prevented annually, respectively. "Although there is no safe exposure threshold below which air pollution becomes harmless, these new results show how the new WHO global recommendations on air quality provide a much better framework to protect human health and prevent a large number of deaths", says ISGlobal researcher Sasha Khomenko, one of the study authors.

Almost 100% of city dwellers live above the recommended limits

The report also highlights that almost 100% of the population of European cities live above the limits recommended by the WHO regarding air quality. If with the previous WHO recommendations this percentage was already 84% in the case of PM2,5 and 9% for NO2, with the new recommendations these figures rise to 99.8% and 99.7% of the population living in heavily polluted cities, respectively. However, it should be qualified that the study was based on air pollution data related to 2015.

"As current levels of air pollution in European cities put more than 100,000 lives at stake every year, the EU would need to bring legislation in line with WHO recommendations", says Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, lead author of the study.

The ten cities with the highest burden of mortality attributable to PM2,5pollution, caused by the burning of fossil fuels and now considered the pollutant with the most serious health effects (cardiovascular and respiratory diseases), are the same as those that had already broken all records under the previous limitations: there are four from Italy (Brescia, Bergamo, Vicenza and Saronno), three from Poland (Upper Silesian Metropolitan Union, Jastrzebie-Zdrój and Rybnik) and three more from the Czech Republic (Karviná, Ostrava and Havírov). In terms of mortality burden associated with nitrogen dioxide, generated mainly by cars, the ten cities at the top of the list are Madrid, Antwerp (Belgium), Turin, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Mollet del Vallès, Brussels, Herne (Germany) and Argenteuil-Bezons (France).