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Air pollution and air quality in the EU

Poor air quality due to pollution and emissions puts people’s health at risk and causes many premature deaths in Europe.

Many Europeans are very concerned about air pollution. It damages lungs and airways and can cause asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases.

Despite a general improvement in air quality, air pollution by fine particles and ground level ozone still causes many premature deaths in the EU every year and reduces life expectancy. It costs billions of euros a year in health care.

Air pollution harms the environment in various ways.

Pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia cause acid rain, which  pollutes forests, rivers, lakes and other natural areas.

Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nitrogen-based nutrients making their way into nature. It is a major contributor to the loss of biodiversity. These nutrients filter into lakes or watercourses, triggering algal blooms that suffocate fish and other wildlife.

Ground level ozone damages the leaves of plants and slows their growth, harms forests and wild plants, and reduces crop yields.

Most air pollution comes from the energy sector, domestic heating systems, heavy industries such as steelworks and oil refineries, transport, agriculture and waste treatment.

EU legislation sets strict standards for:

  • Particulate matter – tiny particles a fraction of a millimetre across. Sources include transport, most forms of combustion and certain industrial processes
  • Ground level ozone – formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of sunlight, making it a particular problem in summer
  • Volatile organic compounds emitted from solvents, paints and varnishes, and from car exhausts and petrol stations
  • Oxides of nitrogen including nitrogen dioxide generated during combustion, for example by vehicle engines and thermal power stations
  • Sulphur dioxide formed when fossil fuels are burnt
  • Ammonia (NH3) released from animal waste and fertiliser
  • Heavy metals released from industrial processes such as purification of metals and electroplating, waste incineration and coal burning in power stations (mercury).
  • Benzene a widely used industrial solvent emitted from many different sources including industrial activities, vehicle exhausts, filling stations, wood smoke and cigarettes.