Environment-wise, Europe is a pretty healthy place.
Europeans don’t blink at acknowledging climate change (unlike Americans), and the continent is home to a number of countries, such as Germany, that have made massive commitments to green energy.
Despite all this, air pollution remains a health risk to many people in Europe, particularly those living in cities.
For example: 80-90% of people living in European cities are exposed to levels of particulate matter (PM) beyond what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
A new report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) found that though levels of most pollutants have declined in recent years, particulate matter and ozone remain health threats. According to the EEA, they also happen to be some of the most dangerous pollutants, potentially causing lung diseases and even death.
PM is generally created by combustion–from power generation, household heating or burning of trash, and running cars. Ozone, on the other hand, is produced by chemical reactions between other gases. These can be anything from vehicle exhaust to paint fumes. Some 95% of Europeans are currently exposed to ozone in quantities above WHO-recommended levels.
In the words of EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade:
Europe’s air quality is generally getting better, but concentrations of some pollutants are still endangering people’s health. To improve air quality further, we need to use many different kinds of policies and measures. These could include reducing emissions levels at source, better urban planning to reduce people’s exposure and lifestyle changes at the individual level.
To protect yourself from air pollution, you should regularly check your local air quality index (AQI). Many countries have developed detailed policies explaining when air quality is good enough for outdoor activity–they are almost always linked to AQI readings. The higher the AQI the worse the air quality.
According to FamilyDoctor.org, on days when the AQI is high you can protect yourself by:
- Staying indoors as much as possible
- Limiting outdoor activity to early morning or evening hours (sunlight increases ozone levels, and as we’ve shown above ozone is quite hazardous to your health)
- Not exercising when air quality is low (the harder you breathe the more pollution you absorb)
There are also a number of things individuals can do to reduce their contribution to air pollution, particularly car owners. According to Washington State’s Department of Ecology, they include:
- Driving less
- Not using lawnmowers or other power tools that emit pollutants
- Not burning trash and other synthetic materials
- Turning car engines off in traffic or at long stops instead of idling (if you drive a Toyota Prius your car does this automatically)
- Waiting till morning or evening to refuel vehicles, paint and use aerosol sprays