Fine particles caused 238,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2020

PM10 and PM2.5 fine particles led to the premature deaths of 238,000 people in EU countries in 2020, an increase over 2019.

Fine particles led to the deaths of 238,000 people in Europe in 2020 alone. One-fifth of these deaths happened in Italy. These alarming figures were an increase over those from 2019, despite the fact that 2020 was the first pandemic year, marked by lockdowns and stoppages to transport services and economic activities, including those responsible for large quantities of toxic emissions.

311,000 overall deaths due to pollution

The report that revealed these figures, published on 24 November by the European Environment Agency (EEA), noted that the number of deaths attributed to particulates was “driven” somewhat by Covid-19, due to the high number of infected people who already suffered from other diseases linked to air pollution (such as cancer, pulmonary disease, or type 2 diabetes). Hence, the overall impact of the pandemic was also negative even from this perspective.

In its report, the EEA stated that “when comparing 2020 to 2019, the number of premature deaths due to fine particle pollution (PM2.5) (the smallest, which can penetrate into human blood, ed.) increased, while deaths due to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3) were reduced.” In total, the number of deaths due to various pollution factors was 311,000, a slight increase from 307,000 in the previous year.

The European Union wants to halve deaths by 2030, compared to 2005

More generally, according to the EEA, 96 per cent of the European Union’s urban population was exposed in 2020 to PM2.5 concentrations above the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organisation to safeguard human health (equivalent to 5 micrograms per cubic metre of air). Meanwhile, with regard to ozone, deaths fell by 3 per cent, whereas those due to nitrogen dioxide fell by 22 per cent. This decrease was linked to the decrease in road traffic due to lockdowns.

air pollution, coal
Visible pollution at a coal power plant in Poland © Omar Marques/Getty Images

The European Union has set a target for the reduction of overall premature deaths due to air pollution at 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005. In that year, the death toll was as high as 450,000 (in the 1990s the figure stood at around one million). According to the EEA, the target is still achievable.

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