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In Europe, the air is not so sweet…

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Most Europeans are breathing air so polluted that it is causing cardiovascular disease and resulting in premature deaths.

A report by the European Environment Agency has found that although progress has been made in the past decade in cutting down on some pollutants, Europeans are still being exposed to dangerous levels of particulate matter and ground-level ozone.

The study, based on ambient air measurements collected across 38 European countries between 2002 and 2011, found that 96 per cent of city dwellers were exposed to very fine particulate matter at concentrations that far exceed World Health Organisation recommendations, and 98 per cent are breathing air containing concentrations of ozone also in excess of WHO guidelines.

The results have been welcomed as a wake-up call for policymakers to redouble efforts to improve air quality, particularly in light of improved understanding of the serious damage to health caused by fine and very fine particulate matter.

According to the report, Air quality in Europe – 2013, progress has been made in reducing concentrations of dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide and lead, which are now judged to be at acceptable levels.

But it found there had been a marked increase in the presence of particulate matter (PM), ozone and reactive nitrogen substances, which posed “a significant threat: particulate matter and ozone pollution are particularly associated with serious health risks”.

Particulate matter emissions from fuel combustion in the commercial, institutional and household sector has increased by 7 per cent since 2002.

“In terms of potential harm to human health, PM poses the greatest risk, as it penetrates into sensitive regions of the respiratory system and can lead to health problems and premature mortality,” the report said.

“The health effects of PM are caused after their inhalation and penetration into the lungs and blood stream, leading to adverse effects in the respiratory, cardiovascular, immune and neural systems.

“A fraction of ultrafine particles may even enter the brain directly through the nose.”

The AMA has for some time been warning of the health risks posed by air pollution, particularly particulate matter, and welcomed a Senate committee report released in August which called for stricter air quality standards, and improved monitoring and data collection arrangements.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said at the time of the release of the Senate report that current air quality standards had failed to keep pace with scientific evidence, and many hazardous pollutants were not subject to routine or independent monitoring.

“The enforcement of existing standards is poor and fragmented,” Dr Hambleton said. “We need stronger regulation and monitoring of emerging industries, such as coal seam gas extraction and other non-conventional mining operations that affect the environment.”

The AMA President said health assessments should be conducted before new mining operations commence, and strict air quality standards should also be applied to current conventional practices, including the transport of coal in uncovered wagons.

“To this effect, we welcome the report’s recommendation for health impact assessments for new developments, and other recommendations for air quality monitoring, research and data collection,” he said.

The European report found that households had become a major source of PM pollution.

“Combustion of biomass by households – burning fuels such as wood and coal – is an important source of directly emitted PM,” it said. “In fact, biomass combustion has become a more important source of air pollution. This is because wood burning is often relatively cheap, and is considered as an environmentally friendly source of energy, since it is renewable and carbon-neutral.”

Adrian Rollins