Print map - Population exposed to PM in air, 2009

Population exposed to PM in air, 2009

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  • The airborne concentration of many air pollutants has decreased. However, some pollutants with negative health impacts, such as particulate matter (PM), remain problematic and pose a threat for people who are permanently exposed to them.
  • The background concentration of particulate matter (PM) is less relevant in Western and Northern Europe than in Eastern Europe and some countries in Southern Europe.
  • Regional hotspots of high PM concentration can be identified for Northern Italy and for Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe a belt consisting of regions with high values ranges from Central Poland to Eastern Bulgarian regions at the Black Sea. 

Observations for policy

In a European perspective, the concentration of particulate matter (PM) is of comparatively low relevance for Western and Northern Europe. Only in single urban areas like Lisbon or Berlin, for example, considerable shares of the population are exposed to PM concentration exceeding health thresholds. The territorial diversity of PM both between countries and between urban and rural areas should thus be considered.

In several countries, large regional differences can be identified. Especially in Italy it becomes obvious that the industrial core area in Northern Italy shows much higher values than the rest of the country. Such regional disparities within single countries can also be seen in Romania and the Czech Republic.

In Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and in Greece almost all regions show values above 75%: The concentration of PM in these regions is a problem that requires national policy approaches.

Policy context

The Sixth Cohesion Report underlines that even though the emissions of many air pollutants have declined in the past, air pollution is still problematic in a number of regions, with particulate matter being one of the most problematic pollutants in terms of health issues. However, the concentration has not been significantly reduced in recent years. Especially in cities the concentration of particulate matter has not changed since 2000. The Territorial Agenda 2020 highlights the territorial diversity of environmental quality, among others, of air across Europe. The presence of clean air does not only vary between countries, regions or between urban and rural areas, but even on smaller scales, for example inside cities.

Consequently and according to the EU directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, air quality plans have to be developed and implemented for zones and agglomerations within which concentrations of certain pollutants exceed the relevant air quality targets. However, the thresholds defined by the European Union are higher than the threshold values recommended by the World Health Organisation (see the section on ‘Concepts and methods’ for further details).

Map interpretation

In most regions in a broad belt from Southwest Europe to the Nordic and Baltic States less than 5% of the population are exposed to PM background concentration that exceeds health thresholds. Only single regions, mainly closely located to urban agglomerations (such as Lisbon, Vilnius, Berlin), show higher values with above 10% of the population exposed to such threats.

A concentration of regions with very high values, i.e. more than 75% of the population exposed to high background concentration, can be found in Northern Italy and in a belt stretching from Poland through Eastern and Southeast Europe to Greece. The exposure of population to particulate matter is a serious national problem in Greece, as in all regions (except one region in Western Greece and some islands) more than 75% of the population is exposed. But also in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria many regions in which at least 25% of the population is exposed to high concentrations of particulate matter can be found.

It is noticeable that there is no clear link between the level of PM10 background concentration and the level of GDP at the European level. In regions with the highest risk like Northern Italy and Southern Poland for example, the emissions are usually of local origin whereas it is also possible that the PM10 pollution is transported from other regions. Also in densely populated urban regions that are characterised by a concentration of energy intensive industries, high shares of population can easily be exposed to high levels of PM10 background concentration. Furthermore, geographical characteristics like valleys where emissions are only slowly replaced by fresh air, can play a role and prevent the circulation of air.

Concepts and methods

The share of the population exposed to particulate matter with a diameter of less than 10 µm (PM10) exceeding health threshold is presented as percentage for all NUTS3 regions of the EU27+4, except Cyprus and the outermost regions for which no data are available.

According to the European Environmental Agency, particulate matter (PM) is a collective name for fine solid or liquid particles added to the atmosphere by processes at the earth’s surface. It includes dust, smoke, soot, pollen, and soil particles. Health thresholds comprise two aspects: The airborne concentration measured in microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3), and the number of days for which the concentration exceeds a certain value.

According to the Air Quality Guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO), one can distinguish between PM10, i.e. particulate matter with a diameter of less than 10 µm, and PM2.5, i.e. particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm. PM10 mainly affects the nose and the throat but can usually not travel deep into lungs, whereas PM2.5 is so fine that it can enter the lungs, and cause severe lung and heart problems (incl. lung cancer). The WHO recommends different thresholds for PM2.5 and PM10. For PM2.5: annual mean value <10 µg/m3, 24 hours mean value <25 µg/m3; for PM10: annual mean value <20 µg/m3, 24 hours mean value <50 µg/m3.


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