Europe must adopt the World Health Organization (WHO) standard on fine particulate matter pollution if it is to significantly curb needless premature deaths, concludes research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Europe wants to cap average levels of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) at 20 μg/m3 by 2010.
But the equivalent standard recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency is 15 μg/m3, while that recommended by the World Health Organization is 10 μg/m3.
Fine particulate matter has been associated with an increase in death from all causes, and particularly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Using validated data on health outcomes and exposure to pollution for 26 European cities, covering more than 40 million inhabitants, the researchers calculated the expected number of deaths that could be delayed for all three standards.
Estimated average annual levels of fine particulate matter ranged from 17 to 61 μg/m3. London and Dublin were the cleanest of the 26 cities, with levels below 10 μ/m3.
Athens in Greece, Cracow in Poland, and the Italian capital Rome were among the worst offenders, with levels above 25 μg/m3.
The calculations showed that reducing average levels to 15 μg/m3 could delay at least 1.6% of premature deaths among those aged 30 and above, a rate four times greater than could be achieved by levels of 25 μg/m3 and two times greater than could be achieved at 20 μg/m3.
But cutting levels to 10 μg/m3, as recommended by the WHO, could produce a fall in early deaths that would be seven times greater, the calculations suggest.
Every city, except London and Dublin would benefit, say the authors, with reductions in premature deaths ranging from 0.8% to 9%, and 80% of this could be achieved within five years.
The authors point out that it is not just lives that would be saved.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that meeting an annual standard of 5 μg/m3 would save between $20-160 billion every year.
“It is clear that reducing air pollution levels is not an easy task,” say the authors. “But the health and economic benefits have been proved.”
Meeting the US or WHO air quality standards “would substantially reduce mortality in European cities,” they say, but “the political willpower is needed,” they warn.