Long-term exposure to nitrogen oxide (NO2) in certain areas raises numerous questions, a citizen science project by BEUC members in Slovakia, Lithuania and Poland shows. At a time when the European Commission is about to present its Zero Pollution Action Plan, urgent actions are needed to protect citizens’ health. 

Last year has been challenging, but it certainly allowed us to reflect on the much-needed changes in our daily habits, especially when it comes to the way we move around and its impact on air quality. 

A systemic rethink is imperative to protect people from the damaging health effects of air pollution. Ahead of the publication of the Zero Pollution Action Plan for air, water and soil, its ambition is clear: 

Union policy on the environment shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.1 

Monitoring is essential to identify future actions. Yet our current knowledge of air pollution exposure is insufficient. 

Air pollution measurements in Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia 

Aware of this knowledge gap, BEUC members Spoločnosť ochrany spotrebiteľov (Slovakia), Lietuvos vartotojų organizacijų aljansas (Lithuania) and Federacja Konsumentów (Poland) led a project to measure NO2 emissions2 where people live, work, or spend most of their time. In the middle of the pandemic, they placed tubes in residential areas, next to schools or along the main roads of cities to get a sense of real-life exposure to NO2. 

Results show that while only a few measuring stations exceed the WHO/EU limit of 40 µg/m³, there are numerous hot spots in every city where concentration levels are worrying. In Slovakia and Lithuania our members identified higher pollution levels along busy roads or next to places frequented by young people. 

A second round of measurements in Poland shows that NO2 pollution levels in a given location can vary enormously over time, due to traffic intensity or meteorological conditions. For example, the second most polluted area in Warsaw during the first test of 15 stations appeared to be the second ‘purest’ area 3 months later. It is therefore almost impossible for consumers to rely on predictable data when moving around or choosing their place of residence. 

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the great variation within Lithuanian and Slovak cities. Even traffic-intensive roads could ‘perform’ well during the timeframe of the measurements due to the combined effects of lockdown measures and meteorological conditions. 

The only consistent results came from parks and green areas where NO2 concentration is particularly low. 

The importance of the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan 

Overall, and despite this variation, the air quality tests in Slovakia, Poland and Lithuania show that there is constant exposure to air pollution3, highlighting the importance of the “prevention-first” principle in the Zero Pollution Action Plan. This is even more urgent as scientists demonstrated that constant exposure has broader effects than estimated: 

  • Several studies prove that “less is better”, no matter what the level of air pollution is. Many scientists thus call for current WHO/EU maximum levels to be lowered4.  
  • In a scientific exercise to quantify the health-related social costs of air pollution (hospital admissions, diseases, reduced life expectancy), the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) estimated that on average every inhabitant of a European city suffered an annual welfare loss of over € 1,250 owing to direct and indirect health losses associated with poor air quality (2018 numbers)5

The recently published 2020 report on Air Quality in Europe by the European Environment Agency does not say otherwise and warns: “[While] the lockdown measures introduced by most European countries to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 led to significant reductions in emissions of air pollutants, (…) air pollution continues to have significant impacts on the health of the European population, particularly in urban areas”.  

What decision-makers can do 

Targeted measures at local level can also help deliver the ambition of Zero Pollution Action Plan. BEUC members have gathered good practices from cities to develop recommendations for officials at national and local level: 

  • Encourage countries to promote the uptake of low- and zero-emission vehicles via taxation measures and incentives (development of charging infrastructure, wider access to city centres for clean vehicles, etc.). Collected taxes should be specifically reinvested to support clean mobility; 
  • A decisive turn towards green and convenient public transport should remain the core aim for city governments despite the hesitancy of some to take public transport due to COVID-19. Governments should improve the quality of information for public transport users by way of real-time data on frequency, punctuality, and occupancy rate; 
  • Promote cycling and develop bike lanes; 
  • Increase the number of parks in highly-populated areas; 

Air quality is a right6, and citizens deserve to breathe clean air. If the EU is serious about Zero Pollution, it will require strict monitoring of air pollution exposure and measures to lower the risks people currently face in their everyday life. 

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/system/files/2021-02/20210210_Overview_ZPAP-workshops.pdf

[2] NO2 (or nitrogen dioxide) is a derivated product of combustion processes mainly coming from road transport. Its direct and undirect impacts on health are widely acknowledged. The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets an annual guideline value of 40 µg/m³. The EU endorses this value.

[3] Note that this project did not measure exposure to particulate matters (PM10 and PM2.5). According to the 2020 report on Air Quality in Europe, more than 70% of the urban population are exposed to concentrations of PM2.5 above the World Health Organisation limits.

[4] See the following studies and projects:

[5] The study used a “methodological framework which encompasses 16 health impacts attributable to air pollution by fine particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen oxide. Using data on reported air quality in the Urban Audit statistics and the EEA Air Quality network, the physical impacts on human health were quantified using concentration-response functions based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO). The physical impacts were subsequently monetized using a valuation framework developed in the peer-reviewed Handbook of External Costs published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Mobility and Transport, DG MOVE. The resulting social costs incurred in a specific city were then determined from the air pollution levels reported there and the size, age structure and living standards of the population in that particular city”. https://epha.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/final-health-costs-of-air-pollution-in-european-cities-and-the-linkage-with-transport.pdf

[6] See various legal actions undertaken by Client Earth: https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/you-have-a-right-to-breathe-clean-air/

Posted by Robin Loos