Dirty air took a devastating toll on the European Union in 2021, claiming the lives of more than half a million people, according to estimates from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Shockingly, about half of these deaths could have been avoided by adhering to pollution limits recommended by doctors. The researchers behind the study attributed 253,000 early deaths to fine particulates, known as PM2.5, that exceeded the World Health Organization’s maximum guideline limits. A further 52,000 deaths were linked to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide, while 22,000 deaths resulted from short-term exposure to elevated ozone levels.

The grim statistics underscore the severity of the air pollution crisis in the EU. Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner, emphasized the urgency of the issue, stating, “The figures released today by the EEA remind us that air pollution is still the number one environmental health problem in the EU.”

Doctors highlight air pollution as one of the leading global killers, and the death toll could drop significantly if countries prioritize cleaning up their economies. Encouragingly, between 2005 and 2021, the number of deaths from PM2.5 in the EU decreased by 41%. The EU aims to achieve a 55% reduction by the end of the decade. However, there is work to be done, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that no level of air pollution can be considered safe. Despite this, the European Parliament, while aligning the EU’s air quality rules with the WHO’s, opted to delay implementation until 2035.

“The good news is that clean air policy works and our air quality is improving,” noted Sinkevičius. “But we need to do better still, and bring pollution levels down further.”

For the first time, the EEA estimated the complete burden of disease from air pollution, considering not only the raw death tolls but also the additional years the population lived with diseases caused by poor air quality. This innovative approach revealed the hidden suffering associated with certain health problems, such as asthma, which had been overlooked in mortality statistics.

Alberto González Ortiz, an EEA air pollution researcher, explained the impact: “When people get lung cancer, normally they die very quickly. For other diseases – especially asthma but also diabetes or also chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – there is also an important contribution of this state of living with disability.”

The EEA’s analysis indicated that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by PM2.5 pollution in 2021 resulted in the loss of approximately 150,000 years of life across the EU, along with a similar number of years of disability. González Ortiz emphasized, “Considering only mortality, we were underestimating the impact of air pollution.”

The primary culprits behind this silent killer are the burning of fossil fuels, vehicular emissions, and livestock farming, which release toxic gases and harmful particles into the air. The smallest particles, PM2.5, pose a particular threat as they can enter the bloodstream, spreading throughout the body and causing damage to organs from the brain down to the reproductive system.

A recent investigation by The Guardian revealed that a staggering 98% of people in Europe were breathing air that exceeded WHO pollution guidelines. The burden of disease, as evidenced by the EEA’s results, is disproportionately concentrated in eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Leena Ylä-Mononen, the executive director of the EEA, offered a glimmer of hope amidst the alarming statistics: “The positive news is that authorities at European, national, and local levels are taking action to reduce emissions through measures like promoting public transport or cycling in city centers, and through updated legislation.”

In the face of this environmental health crisis, urgent and concerted efforts are needed to tackle the root causes of air pollution and safeguard the well-being of millions across the European Union. The time to act is now, as the silent killer continues to claim lives and cast a shadow over the continent’s air quality.