Air quality has improved across much of Europe in recent years, but air pollution remains “a major health concern on the continent.

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Air quality has improved across much of Europe in recent years, not least because of reduced economic activity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet there is no reason to celebrate just yet as air pollution remains “a major health concern” for people on the continent, according to the European Environment Agency.

“In some bigger cities, high concentrations of NO2 persist due to road traffic, with NO2 linked to asthma and breathing problems,” the agency notes.

This is of concern because prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter can cause or worsen cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases as well as a host of other ailments from Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly to learning disabilities in children.

“Despite reductions in emissions, in 2020 most of the EU’s urban population was exposed to levels of key air pollutants that are damaging to health. Critically for health, 96% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3,” the EEA notes.

“In contrast, less than 1% of the urban population was exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 25 µg/m3, highlighting the discrepancy between current EU policy objectives and the scientific evidence on when health effects occur,” it warns.

Among the regions worst-affected by air pollution are Central-Eastern Europe and Italy owing primarily to the burning of solid fuels such as coal and wood for domestic heating and the use of fossil fuels in industrial production, according to the agency.

This should come as no surprise as countries like Poland, where vast quantities of coal continue to be burned, have long been beset by foul air across large swathes of their territories for most of the year.

Nor is the problem limited to Europe. Globally, around 2.5 billion people, or 86% of all urban residents, suffer from varying degrees of air pollution with many of them at increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and other diseases, according to a recent finding.

Especially worrying are persistently high levels of air pollution in India and other developing nations where hundreds of millions of people, from newborns to centenarians, are exposed to PM2.5 and other airborne pollutants all year round.

Troublingly, despite nationwide efforts in India to tackle the problem, air pollution in the country is getting worse with numerous towns and cities plagued by palls of smog and smoke. India’s government has pledged to reduce particulate matter emissions by up to 30% from 2017 levels by 2024, but progress on this goal has been lackluster at best.

“A total of 132 cities now have pollution levels deemed below national standards, from 102 cities when the National Clean Air Programme began in 2019, according to a report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air,” the Bloomberg news agency reported in January.

“Limited funding, the lack of tighter emissions standards for industries including metal smelters to oil refineries and slow progress on adding monitoring stations are all factors hampering work to improve air quality,” it added.

Even many unborn children are affected as air pollution is causing higher rates of miscarriages, pregnancy complications and stillbirths, especially in Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, and other similarly affected urban centers in the country.

In all over 90% of Indians live in areas where air quality is consistently below standards deemed safe by the World Health Organization. A major reason for that lies in the continued use of outdated coal-fired power plants while factories and vehicles, too, contribute their own shares of pollutants.

“The problem worsens during winter due to the burning of crop stubble by farmers, typically blanketing northern cities, including the capital New Delhi, in a choking smog,” Bloomberg explained.

Most of the farms responsible are run by small-scale farmers who cannot afford to hire a large number of workers or to afford high-end machinery and so many of them continue to resort to stubble burning, finding it the most suitable way to switch from one crop to another.

“Slow progress in tackling pollution risks adding to premature deaths of citizens — an estimated 1.67 million people died in 2019 as a result of India’s dirty air — and extending pressure on the nation’s economy from higher health expenditure and productivity losses,” the news agency adds.

The solution, whether in Europe or India, lies in comprehensive polices that can at the very least ameliorate the problem of air pollution, according to the United Nations.

Yet, according to a recent study by the UN’s Environment Programme, 43% of countries out of 194 surveyed lack a legal definition for air pollution and nearly a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated ambient air-quality standards.

Worse, as many as 37% of nations do not legally have national air-quality monitoring mechanisms in place, to begin with.

“All countries must raise their ambition on mitigation,” stressed Inger Andersen, the UN agency’s head.

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