It’s Time to Clear the Air About Fine Particulate Pollution in Europe
Like a lot of the rest of the world, Europe has a pollution problem. And we’re not talking about carbon dioxide (although, there is that). And we’re not talking about raw sewage spewed into public water ways (athough, there’s that, too). No, we’re talking about a pollution problem that’s more along the lines of breathe the air and die prematurely. Although maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and only end up with asthma.
A New Focus on Fine Particulate Pollution in Europe
This isn’t new news, though it did splash across the front pages a few weeks ago like splatter from a puddle on the road.
In short, if you’re living any part of Europe that isn’t a freezing cold, windswept, underpopulated outpost like Iceland, rural Scotland, most of Scandinavia, and the mountaintops of the Alps, you’re breathing in dangerously high levels of fine particulate matter.
Dust, schmust, you might be saying. A little dust never hurt anyone. But of course dust can be deadly. Just ask anyone who has ended up with black lung disease (and hope that their lungs aren’t so shot that they can’t give you an audible answer). Airborne particulates are one of the most harmful forms of air pollution. There is literally no safe level to be breathing in (aside from none).
The fraction of the airborne particulates that is 0.1 to 2.5 mm in diameter (known as PM2.5 or as fine particulate matter) is particularly insidious. When you breathe such fine particulates in, they infiltrate deep into your lungs. They can lodge there and cause damage or cross over into your blood stream and make their way to organs like your brain.
On top of the non–fatal problems these fine particulates cause, long–term exposure to them kills about 4 million people across the globe each year. That makes them responsible for more than 60% of the world’s fatalities due to air pollution. People in China and India—places famous for their air quality issues—contribute the most to those deaths, with 1.42 million people dying in China each year and 980,000 in India.
Over here in Europe, the number is more like 400,000 thousand people per year. That’s like losing a city the size of Bristol (UK)—including the babies, who, like the elderly, are particularly susceptible to the ill–effects of fine particulates—every year due to the cases of lung cancer, COPD, heart disease, pneumonia, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and what are termed “adverse birth outcomes” caused by long–term exposure to fine particulate matter.
Deaths which could be almost entirely prevented, or at least greatly diminished, if we could get anthropogenic sources of fine particulate matter under control.
Improving Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality
Indoors, that means no smoking! It also means not using a fireplace or even one of the most modern wood burning (heating) stoves to cozy up your living room on cold winter nights.
It even means cutting way back on frying foods (lots of little lipid droplets get launched into the air) and swapping out your gas (cooking) stove for an electric one. And, for heaven’s sake, ditch the candles! And if you’re crazy enough to be using fuel–burning space heaters, just stop.
Outdoors, we’re at each other’s mercy. Because you can stop driving a fossil fuel burning car, but that doesn’t mean everyone in your city and the long–haul truckers driving through are also going to go electric.
Likewise, you can switch from a burner and a boiler to a heat pump for heating your home and your water, but if all your neighbors’ clunky, old, wood, coal, or oil burning heating systems are still spewing fine particulates out their chimneys, you’re neighborhood will still be awash in locally generated fine particulate pollution. And then, as everyone who was downwind of Canada in summer 2023 could tell you, there’s wildfires.
Meanwhile, fine particulates can also form when gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (known collectively as NOx) participate in additional chemical reactions. So anyone burning coal or driving diesel–powered vehicles in your vicinity will be generating additional fine particle pollution for you to enjoy.
Differences in Pollution Density
Because human activities like heating and driving are major sources of fine particle pollution, concentrations of fine particulates in European air tends to be higher in cities than in the countryside. Like people, traffic, heating systems, and fireplaces are concentrated in cities.
Cities also have more power plants, most of which are burning fossil fuels like coal or gas. In more European cities than you might think, there are also cruise ships and ferries that dock along the quays at the edge of the center of town and are a significant local source of fine particulate pollution.
But, even if the air is slightly better in the countryside, you can’t necessarily escape the problem of fine particule pollution by fleeing to rural areas.
I was personally surprised when I looked up where I live on an interactive map of fine particulate pollution in Europe. Kiel, the nearest big city to me—and one with highways that run through the heart of town, a steady flow of cruise ships and ferries, and a local garbage burning facility, at that (although the garbage burning facility’s emissions are stringently filtered)—clocks in at 10–12 micrograms of fine particulates per cubic meter of air.
This, which can be more scientifically written as 10–12 μg/m3, was the average for measurements running from 2000 to 2019. As values go, that’s more than twice the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization of 5 μg/m3. But if you look at the adjacent rural area I live in, it’s only one shade less horrible. Its average concentration of particulates over the last 20 years has been 8.5–10 μg/m3.
And that’s still terrible.
The reasons for this lousy air quality are obvious if you spend even a couple of days out here in the countryside.
There are barely any roads here and therefore relatively little traffic, but there’s no shortage of tractors rumbling by. Most of them are old and all of the old ones are stinky and spewing black smoke out their pipes. (In principle, like cars, tractors have to have their emissions tested every two years. In reality, a lot of the grumpy old farmers out here are… well… let’s just call them libertarians.)
Meanwhile, everyone has a wood burning stove in their living room and the worst offenders burn coal instead. The worst worst offenders are using stoves that are too old to have adequate filtration systems in place.
At the same time, everyone here is heating their homes and water in oil burning heaters that are also, typically, ten to 20 years old. Until five days ago, this was true of us, too. But now we’re using a heat pump, which runs on electricity (and we buy our electricity from a wind farm, not a coal fired power plant).
In short, our little neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere has no one to blame but itself for the lousy quality of the air we are breathing (except on the days when the farmers are spraying manure, but that’s a whole other story).
The Future of Air Quality in Europe
The bright side to fine particulate pollution in Europe is that in 20 or 30 years, those of us who are still able to breathe will look back and think we were crazy to have still been burning fossil fuels instead of fighting to electrify our world.
Heating our homes and producing hot water using a electricity powered heat pump instead of in fossil fuel powered boilers and burners eliminates that source of fine particulates. This is especially true when the electricity comes from a renewable source, like wind or solar. Ditto for driving an electric car. And for cooking with an electric stove/oven.
We could also so easily give up our fireplace/wood stove, or at least save having a fire for those rare times when the power is out.
Switching over from wood or fossil fuel combustion systems to heat pumps, cooking stoves, and cars that run on electricity takes time, effort, and money. But the sooner we do it, the sooner we’ll stop having so many murderously fine particular particles in our air and the longer we’ll live in good health.