More than 90% of Europeans living in cities are exposed to unsafe levels one of the most health damaging air pollutants, with Bulgaria having the dirtiest air among EU countries, says a new study by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Despite falling emission levels and reductions of some air pollutant concentrations over the past decades, EU air pollution is still far from being solved, according to the report, 'Air quality in Europe – 2013'.
Two pollutants – particulate matter and ground-level ozone – continue to be an especially large cause of breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives, the EEA says.
Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96% of city dwellers were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, and up to 98% were exposed to ozone (O3) levels above WHO guidelines.
Lower proportions of EU citizens were exposed to levels of these pollutants exceeding the limits or targets set out in EU legislation. These EU limits or targets are in certain cases less strict than WHO guidelines.
“Air quality is a central concern for many people," said Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.
"Surveys show that a large majority of citizens understand well the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels, even in times of austerity and hardship. I am ready to respond to these concerns through the Commission's upcoming Air Policy Review," the commissioner said in a statement.
The EEA's executive director, Hans Bruyninckx, also stressed that to get on to a sustainable path, Europe would have to be ambitious and "go beyond current legislation".
The report, which examined air quality broadly in Europe, has included data from beyond the EU, but not all of the 38 countries that participated provided a full range of data.
According to the report, Bulgaria has the highest concentrations of the two major varieties of particulate matter, which normally stem from airborne droplets or vehicle tailpipes. Bulgaria also has the highest concentrations of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
Four of Europe’s five cities with the most consistently high levels of particulate matter were Bulgarian. Pernik, a small city just southwest of the capital, Sofia, topped the list as the dirtiest city, with high concentrations of particulates in the air around half of the year, compared to about 15 days of the year for Paris and Stuttgart in Germany.
Poland, where coal predominates in electricity production, also ranked at or near bottom for several air quality measures. Meanwhile, another EU new member, Estonia, was frequently ranked as having the cleanest air.
As air quality problems are not constrained by borders, air pollution may sometimes be "imported" from neighbouring countries by wind, the EEA said. Less than half of the fine particular matter seen in many EU member states actually comes from emissions within the country’s own borders, the report found.