Study reveals major enhancements in Europe’s air quality over twenty years

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A team of researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has made significant strides in understanding air pollution in Europe by employing machine learning techniques to analyze daily concentrations of key pollutants like PM2.5, PM10, NO2, and O3 across many regions.

Their study, spanning from 2003 to 2019 and covering over 1,400 regions in 35 European countries, aimed to identify days that surpassed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2021 air quality guidelines. These are referred to as “unclean air days.”

The findings, published in Nature Communications, reveal a dual trend: while particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have generally decreased across Europe, ozone (O3) levels have risen in southern Europe, leading to an increase in unclean air days.

Despite overall progress, a staggering 86.3% of the European population still faced at least one day a year where multiple pollutants exceeded safe limits, particularly PM2.5-NO2 and PM2.5-O3 combinations.

Interestingly, the analysis indicates that PM10 levels saw the most significant reduction, followed by NO2 and PM2.5, while O3 levels actually increased annually in southern Europe.

This rise in O3 has nearly quadrupled the number of unclean air days, pointing to an area of concern that requires targeted action, especially given the challenges posed by climate change.

The research utilized high-resolution machine learning models to predict daily air quality across Europe, combining data from satellite imagery, atmospheric conditions, and land use.

This approach offered a more detailed view than traditional methods reliant on sparse monitoring stations.

Despite improvements, nearly the entire European population lives in areas where the WHO’s annual limits for PM2.5, PM10, and NO2 are exceeded. The situation is most critical for ozone, with no country meeting the annual standard throughout the study period.

The geographical distribution of pollutants varied, with northern Italy and eastern Europe facing the highest levels of PM2.5 and PM10, and southern Europe grappling with rising O3 levels.

Ozone management presents a particular challenge due to its formation from precursors like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, often originating from vehicle emissions and industrial activities.

The study emphasizes the need for comprehensive strategies that address both air pollution and climate change, as rising temperatures and increased sunlight can exacerbate ozone formation.

The concept of “compound unclean air days,” where multiple pollutants exceed safe levels simultaneously, poses an additional challenge.

The study found that such events are becoming increasingly common, particularly those involving PM2.5 and O3, highlighting the complex interaction between these pollutants and the role of climate change in their prevalence.

This research underscores the importance of continued efforts to improve air quality in Europe. It calls for targeted interventions to reduce levels of PM2.5 and O3, alongside broader measures to tackle climate change.

The detailed analysis provided by the team at ISGlobal offers valuable insights for policymakers and researchers working to protect public health and the environment from the adverse effects of air pollution.

The research findings can be found in Nature Communications.

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