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Air pollution with particulate matter (PM) claims an average of 8.6 months from the life of every person in the European Union (EU).

The WHO Regional Office for Europe has highlighted the impact of air pollution on health and the financial costs.

Long-term exposure to PM is particularly damaging to human health and reduces life expectancy, and needs to be tackled as a priority. There would also be key financial benefits. For the EU, €58-161 billion could be saved if deaths from PM pollution were reduced. Additionally, €29 billion need not be spent on diseases attributed to PM.

Evidence indicates that PM increases deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Even a short-term rise in PM concentrations increases the risk of emergency hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory causes. PM is made up of tiny particles, varying in size, composition and origin. Inhaled, the coarse fraction (PM10 – particles with a diameter smaller than 10 µm) may reach the upper part of the airways and lung). What are called fine particles (PM2.5 -with a diameter smaller than 2.5 µm) are more dangerous, as they penetrate more deeply into the lung and may reach the alveolar region.

Sources of PM air pollution

Transport and use of fossil fuel in households are the major contributors to PM air pollution. In particular, diesel combustion contributes a third of total emissions of PM2.5

International nature of the problem

Owing to the transboundary movement of PM, a substantial part of concentrations in a country originates in emissions from other countries.

What can be done about air pollution?

Activities to manage air quality at the local, regional and national levels need to be integrated to improve air quality in cities. Measures such as traffic management or improved urban design at the local level alone may be very cost-effective in reducing the exposure of people living in hot spots, but of limited effectiveness for the protection of society as a whole. Providing alternatives to private motorized vehicles, particularly public and non-motorised transport such as trains, cycling and walking, may lead to changes in people’s behaviour and would reduce traffic congestion and influence long-term trends in transport demand and pollution emission.

Other measures – such as increasing energy efficiency, using cleaner fuels in households, industry and vehicles, and using end-of-pipe controls such as particle filters – are also important for the reduction of pollution and population exposure. They are not sufficient, however, without society’s commitment to clean air. Long-term planning, fiscal incentives, legislative measures and communication with the public are all necessary to achieve this result.

WHO press release.

WHO factsheet on PM air pollution.

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