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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:39 GMT
Air pollution causes early deaths
Traffic fumes
Pollution can penetrate deep into the body
Air pollution is responsible for 310,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, research suggests.

A study by the European Commission calculated that air pollution reduces life expectancy by an average of almost nine months across the European Union.

Poor quality air is thought to result in more than 32,000 premature deaths in the UK each year alone.

Experts say many of these deaths could be avoided if measures were put in place to cut pollution levels.

Premature deaths due to particulate matter
Germany 65,088
Italy 39,436
France 36,868
UK 32,652
Poland 27,934
Spain 13,939
Netherlands 13,123
Hungary 11,067
Belgium 10,669
Czech Republic 7,996
Austria 4,634
EU member states, 2000
The figures show every European takes on average half a day off sick a year due to illnesses linked to air pollution - costing the economy more than 80bn euros (55bn).

The main threat to health is posed by tiny particles known as particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into the respiratory tissue, and even directly into the bloodstream.

They are emitted by traffic (particularly diesel engines), industry and domestic heating.

Ozone produced when sunlight reacts with pollutants emitted by vehicle exhausts is also a major cause of respiratory disease.

Blackspots

There are major variations between member states in terms of air pollution.

The situation is the worst in Benelux area, Northern Italy, and new member states such as Poland and Hungary.

Lost life expectancy is worst in Belgium, where on average people lose 13.6 months of life, and the Netherlands, at 12.7 months.

The Finns are the least affected, losing just 3.1 months on average, followed by the Irish at 3.9 months.

The European Commission is to try to reduce the threat to health by adopting a new strategy on air pollution from May.

Barbara Helfferich, an environment spokesperson for the Commission, told the BBC: "There are number of ways of doing this.

"We can reduce burning of fossil fuel, we can use alternative energy sources, we can restrict traffic in inner cities."

Professor Andrew Peacock, of the British Thoracic Society, said: "We have known for some time that high levels of air pollution have a direct link to respiratory illnesses.

"We would urge for this subject area to be looked into further and for the government to continue working with others to minimise pollution levels in this country."

Government response

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said: "The government takes air pollution very seriously and we monitor air pollution levels very carefully.

"Local authorities now have action plans to tackle pollution hotspots, and we have tighter controls to cut industrial emissions.

"In general the long-term trend shows air quality is getting better, but there is still a lot to do to achieve even cleaner air, requiring local, national, and international action."

The spokesman said four Air Quality Strategy targets - for lead, carbon monoxide, benzene and 1,3-butadiene - had been met.

The UK climate change programme was also being reviewed. This is intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but will also impact on levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particles.


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