The link between ill health, air pollution, and inequalities

13 February, 2017
Policy Precis Banner Air Pollution and Health

Last week, the European Commission announced that air quality standards are still exceeded in 23 Member states in a total of 130 cities across Europe, as part of its Environmental Implementation review. In January pollution levels became so high that warnings were simultaneously issued in many cities including Brussels, London, Paris, Budapest, and Sofia. Many advised citizens, especially the most vulnerable, to take protective measures including reducing exposure and physical exertion.

Air pollution is responsible for 400,000 premature deaths and causes 6.5 million people to fall ill each year in the EU, with the health impacts disproportionately falling on the most disadvantaged. However, new initiatives, evidence, and policies are providing pathways to a cleaner future. Inter-sectoral initiatives at European, regional, national, and community levels are already emerging and now need further support.

The current impacts of air pollution on health and related inequalities, the European policy landscape, and initiatives which will help improve the situation have been summarised in the recently published Policy Precis from EuroHealthNet.

Download the document here.

Air pollution is a persistent problem. It decreases life expectancy of everyone in Europe by almost 1 year on average and is causing strokes, asthma, and bronchitis. The impacts of air pollution are not evenly spread with higher levels of pollution in more socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. Further, socioeconomically disadvantaged people are more sensitive to the effects of air pollution due to underlying or associated illness, life habits or addictive behaviours, and have limited access or resources to manage health problems.

Measures have been taken at European level to tackle this problem, and research and recommendations are available to help inform future policy. Some of these are:

  • Clean Air programme for Europe (2013)
  • National Emission Ceilings Directive (2001)
  • 7th Environmental Action Programme of the EU (2014)
  • WHO air quality guidelines (2005)

In June 2016, an agreement for a new National Emission Ceilings Directive (June 2016) was made, in the European Council and Parliament. This set limits from 2020 to 2029 and 2030 onwards, and aims to reduce the health im­pact of air pollution by about 50% in 2030 (compared to 2005).

The pathways to progress can be found in inter-sectoral initiatives which at all levels of governance. They must target the most disadvantaged, but also consider how the whole of society lives, moves, and consumes as it is the most prosperous which cause the greatest environmental damage. Progress will be made when:

Good practice becomes systematic. This includes assessing the impacts on environments and health across the social gradient, implementing ‘whole of government measures which address the issue at local and global levels, and using EU funds for action at community levels.

Cities become safe, resilient and sustainable. This requires collaboration between global, European and national civil society bodies and governments, to allow activities on transport, environment, and health to be streamlined.

Consumption and production patterns become sustainable. Policies and practices which address domestic and industrial practices, housing, transport, and energy must become mainstream. Citizens should become engaged and empowered to make decisions which will lead to healthier environments. More information can be found at and

Read this policy précis here. 

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