Over 400,000 Dying Each Year from Fine Particulates


A July 2015 report from the European Environment Agency (“EEA”) says that 430,000 Europeans are dying each year prematurely because of fine particulate pollution. Exposure to noise was calculated to contribute to heart disease and a further 10,000 deaths. And, while some may think that Europe starts the other side of the North Sea, we here in the UK are included in those startling figures.

The report states “Air pollution can damage human health through direct exposure via inhalation or indirectly through exposure to contaminants transported through the air, deposited on plants and the soil, and accumulated in the food chain. Air pollution continues to contribute to much of the burden of lung cancer, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases in Europe (WHO). The evidence is growing for other health effects, including reduced foetal growth and pre-term birth in children exposed prenatally, and impacts on health in adult life from perinatal exposure.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity. While living within planetary limits is an immense challenge, there are huge benefits in responding to it. Fully using Europe’s capacity to innovate could make us truly sustainable and put us at the frontier of science and technology, creating new industries and a healthier society.

The EEA says that dirty air and noise continue to cause problems, particularly in urban areas, with 90% of the European urban population exposed to air pollutants at levels deemed to be harmful to health by the World Health Organisation, and transport is a large contributor to this. Increased use of chemicals in a wide range of products is also leading to hormone problems. In 2011 at least 125 million people were estimated as being exposed to high levels of road traffic noise, above the noise indicator of 55dB. Road traffic is the greatest contributor to noise exposure in Europe. While its potential to contribute to harmful impacts is clear, tackling noise pollution is challenging, as it is a direct consequence of society’s demand and need for mobility and productivity.

As if this isn’t all bad enough, the EEA’s report called “Signals 2015” estimated that 70,000 deaths were caused by the heatwave of 2003 and forecasts that heat-related deaths could reach 70,000 by 2050 and 120,000 per year in Europe by 2100. And these changing weather patterns are recognised by scientists as being largely man-made, and again come back in part to the use of fuels particularly in transport.

Despite measures such as driving restrictions at some times and in some places, there are no reasons for relaxing, and the report calls for effective and radical measures to be taken by governments in order to bring about a systemic change. While Hans Bruyninckx warns that the pace of pollution is accelerating, EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella demands higher investment in clean technology and insists that environmental and economic decisions must be coordinated to work hand in hand.

Europe stands roughly halfway between the initiation of EU environmental policy in the early 1970s and the EU’s 2050 vision of ‘living well within the limits of the planet”. Underlying this vision is a recognition that Europe’s economic prosperity and well-being is intrinsically linked to its natural environment — from fertile soils to clean air and water.

Deteriorating trends dominate in greenhouse gas emissions and climate change mitigation; energy consumption and fossil fuel use; transport demand and related environmental impacts; and climate change and related environmental health risks. Fuel combustion is a key contributor to air pollution, from road transport – more than 40% of emissions of nitrogen oxides come from transport – households, and energy use and production.

The reports is quite clear that “established environmental and economic policies focused on efficiency improvements are necessary contributions to achieving the 2050 vision of living well within the limits of the planet but are unlikely to be sufficient in themselves. The transition to a green economy is a long-term, multi-dimensional and fundamental process that will require a move away from the current linear economic model of ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ which relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy. This will necessitate profound changes in dominant institutions, practises, technologies, policies, lifestyles and thinking.

The transition to a green economy will involve reconciling the longer-term perspective of environmental policies with the relatively short-term focus of economic and social policies. With some justification, decision makers give issues such as tackling unemployment and dealing with social inequalities greater emphasis as society expects immediate action and results. Less emphasis is given to longer-term actions that deliver less immediate and visible benefits, such as actions to restore ecosystem resilience.

These different time scales pose a further challenge since achieving long-term visions and objectives crucially depends on short- and medium-term actions and investments. In terms of policy, the EU needs to ensure that its targets and objectives in the 2020–2030 timeframe provide a viable pathway to realising the 2050 vision.

We really do need to see cycling not just as a great leisure pastime, but also as a means of transport and commuting. The research results have been stated often enough, that more people would cycle if the infrastructure is there. We need to push government – local and national – to heed Commissioner Vella’s plea. Quite simply: lives depend on it.


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