EEA Signals 2013 - Every breath we take
Linking science, policy and the public
The atmosphere, weather patterns and seasonal variations have long been an object of fascination and observation. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle’s treatise Meteorology compiled the great philosopher’s observations not only on the weather patterns, but on earth sciences in general. Until the 17th century, air symbolised ‘nothingness’. It was assumed that air had no weight until Galileo Galilei scientifically proved that it has.
Today we have a much more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of our atmosphere. We can set up stations to monitor air quality, and within minutes we can see the chemical composition of the air at those locations and how these relate to long-term trends. We also have a much clearer overview of the sources of air pollution affecting Europe. We can estimate the amount of pollutants released to the air by individual industrial facilities. We can predict and monitor air movements and offer immediate and free access to this information. Our understanding of the atmosphere and its chemical interactions has certainly come a long way since Aristotle.
The atmosphere is complex and dynamic. Air moves around the world and so do the pollutants the air contains. Emissions from car exhausts in urban areas; forest fires; ammonia emitted by agriculture; coal-fired power plants across the planet; and even volcano eruptions affect the quality of the air we breathe. In some cases, the pollutant sources are located thousands of kilometres away from where the damage occurs.
We also know that poor air quality can have a dramatic effect on our health and well-being as well as on the environment. Air pollution can trigger and aggravate respiratory diseases; it can damage forests, acidify soils and waters, reduce crop yields and corrode buildings. We can also see that many air pollutants contribute to climate change and that climate change itself is going to affect air quality in the future.
Policies have improved air quality but…
As a result of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence, demands by the public and a series of legislation, Europe’s air quality has improved considerably in the last 60 years. The concentrations of many air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene, have decreased significantly. Lead concentrations have dropped sharply below the limits set by legislation.
But despite such achievements, Europe has not yet attained the air quality foreseen in its legislation or desired by its citizens. Particulate matter and ozone are today the two most important pollutants in Europe, posing serious risks to human health and the environment.
Current laws and air quality measures target specific sectors, processes, fuels and pollutants. Some of these laws and measures put limits on the amount of pollutants that countries are allowed to release into the atmosphere. Other measures aim to reduce the population’s exposure to unhealthy levels of pollutants by limiting high concentrations — the amount of a certain pollutant in the air at a given location at a given time.