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Scale of Europe’s air pollution problem demands more action

In December, 1952, London was gripped by a “great smog” that wreaked havoc on the city for days and resulted in several thousand deaths. The severity of the event provided a wake-up call to legislators and prompted a series of regulatory changes to address the problem of air pollution in UK cities, including the landmark Clean Air Act of 1956. 60 years on, however, the health effects of air pollution are still unacceptably high. In 2013 alone, exposure to one type of air pollution—particulate matter less than 2·5 μm in diameter (PM2.5)—was estimated to be responsible for almost 40 000 premature deaths in the UK. Overall, data presented in the Nov 23, 2016, European Environmental Agency (EEA) report on air quality in Europe indicates that air pollution is responsible for an estimated 467 000 premature deaths each year across 41 European countries.

Most premature deaths from air pollution are caused by cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory disease, but there is growing evidence that air pollution might have much broader effects, including on preterm birth, fertility, diabetes, childhood neurological development, and adult neurological conditions. The EEA report outlines that despite notable improvements in some sectors, air pollution remains the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. Key European Union (EU) and WHO recommended exposure limits are being exceeded in several urban centres across Europe and will continue to do so unless current trends are drastically improved on.

So what must be done? Air pollution is a problem that crosses disciplines and borders, and will necessarily require multidisciplinary solutions that engage urban planning, public health, law, and cultural change. On Nov 23, 2016, the EU had an opportunity to drive such change when Members of the European Parliament voted on updated National Emission Ceilings. The newly agreed targets will likely cut premature deaths from air pollution by up to 50% by 2030—an improvement, yes, but considering how many lives will continue to be prematurely lost each year, it is clear that these aims do not go nearly as far as they should.

[Source: The Lancet, 3 December 2016]