Premature mortality due to air pollution in European cities: a health impact assessment

Elsevier, Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 5, Issue 3, March 2021, Pages e121–e134.
Authors: 
Sasha Khomenko, Marta Cirach, Evelise Pereira-Barboza, Natalie Mueller, Jose Barrera-Gómez, David Rojas-Rueda, Kees de Hoogh, Gerard Hoek, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen

Background

Ambient air pollution is a major environmental cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Cities are generally hotspots for air pollution and disease. However, the exact extent of the health effects of air pollution at the city level is still largely unknown. We aimed to estimate the proportion of annual preventable deaths due to air pollution in almost 1000 cities in Europe.

Methods

We did a quantitative health impact assessment for the year 2015 to estimate the effect of air pollution exposure (PM2·5 and NO2) on natural-cause mortality for adult residents (aged ≥20 years) in 969 cities and 47 greater cities in Europe. We retrieved the cities and greater cities from the Urban Audit 2018 dataset and did the analysis at a 250 m grid cell level for 2015 data based on the global human settlement layer residential population. We estimated the annual premature mortality burden preventable if the WHO recommended values (ie, 10 μg/m3 for PM2·5 and 40 μg/m3 for NO2) were achieved and if air pollution concentrations were reduced to the lowest values measured in 2015 in European cities (ie, 3·7 μg/m3 for PM2·5 and 3·5 μg/m3 for NO2). We clustered and ranked the cities on the basis of population and age-standardised mortality burden associated with air pollution exposure. In addition, we did several uncertainty and sensitivity analyses to test the robustness of our estimates.

Findings

Compliance with WHO air pollution guidelines could prevent 51 213 (95% CI 34 036–68 682) deaths per year for PM2·5 exposure and 900 (0–2476) deaths per year for NO2 exposure. The reduction of air pollution to the lowest measured concentrations could prevent 124 729 (83 332–166 535) deaths per year for PM2·5 exposure and 79 435 (0–215 165) deaths per year for NO2 exposure. A great variability in the preventable mortality burden was observed by city, ranging from 0 to 202 deaths per 100 000 population for PM2·5 and from 0 to 73 deaths for NO2 per 100 000 population when the lowest measured concentrations were considered. The highest PM2·5 mortality burden was estimated for cities in the Po Valley (northern Italy), Poland, and Czech Republic. The highest NO2 mortality burden was estimated for large cities and capital cities in western and southern Europe. Sensitivity analyses showed that the results were particularly sensitive to the choice of the exposure response function, but less so to the choice of baseline mortality values and exposure assessment method.

Interpretation

A considerable proportion of premature deaths in European cities could be avoided annually by lowering air pollution concentrations, particularly below WHO guidelines. The mortality burden varied considerably between European cities, indicating where policy actions are more urgently needed to reduce air pollution and achieve sustainable, liveable, and healthy communities. Current guidelines should be revised and air pollution concentrations should be reduced further to achieve greater protection of health in cities.