Air pollution in the European Union is causing premature deaths even when levels meet quality guidelines, a report has shown. Even in areas where pollution was much lower than the limit, scientists found there is a higher-than-normal risk of death.
The study, published the British Medical Association’s journal The Lancet, found that Europeans who have had prolonged exposure to pollution from industrial activities or road traffic have a higher chance of premature death. The increased risk to a person’s health is linked to tiny particles of soot and dust than can get lodged in the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses.
The study, carried out by Utrecht University in the Netherlands, found the particles measure 2.5 microns or 2.5 millionth of a meter. Exposure for “up to a few months” to particles of 2.5 microns can increase the risk of premature death.
"Although this does not seem to be much, you have to keep in mind that everybody is exposed to some level of air pollution and that it is not a voluntary exposure, in contrast to, for example, smoking," scientist Rob Beelen, who led the study, told AFP.
The findings of the study echo the results of similar investigations carried out in North America and China.
“Our findings support health impact assessments of fine particles in Europe which were previously based almost entirely on North American studies,” Beelen said.
As part of the study the researchers drew on 22 previously published studies that documented the health of 367,000 people in 13 countries in Western Europe over 14 years. Beelen and his team then traveled to the areas where the participants lived and took traffic pollution readings that they used to calculate how much pollution local residents were exposed to.
During the investigation, 29,000 of the 367,000 participants recruited in 1990 died. In order to increase accuracy, investigations also took into account such factors as physical exercise, body mass, education and smoking habits.
European Union guidelines set the maximum exposure to particles of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beelen says the results of this study are evidence the EU needs to reset its safety limits to 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
"Despite major improvements in air quality in the past 50 years, the data from Beelen and his colleagues' report draw attention to the continuing effects of air pollution on health,” Jeremy Langrish and Nicholas Mills, of the University of Edinburgh, told the Medical Press.
In China a red alert was issued for poor air quality was issued Thursday after pollution reached hazardous levels. The coastal city of Qingdao recorded PM2.5 Air Quality Index levels of over 300, while Nanjing saw a reading of 354 on Wednesday, according to local news portal news.longhoo.net.
In light of the dangerous levels of pollution the Chinese government is considering the practice of ‘cloud seeding’ to clear toxic fog in the country. According to a document released by the China Meteorological Administration, from 2015 local meteorological authorities will be permitted to use cloud seeding to disperse pollution.
The World Health Organization has classified outdoor pollution as one of the principal causes of cancer and estimates around 3.2 million people die every year globally as a result of prolonged exposure.