In Italy 30,000 people die every year because of air pollution caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) only – which corresponds to 7% of all deaths (excluding accidents). In terms of life expectancy this means that, on average, air pollution shortens the life of every Italian citizen by 10 months; 14 months for those living in Northern Italy; 6.6 months for those living in Central Italy and 5.7 for the inhabitants of Southern Italy and the islands of the country. Northern Italy is the most affected area. Respecting laws would save 11,000 lives every year.
These are the most important findings of
the “Progetto VIIAS” – VIIAS project (the Italian
acronym stands for: “Integrated Evaluation of the Impact of Air Pollution on
the Environment and Health”), coordinated by the Department of Epidemiology of
the Lazio Region Health Service within the initiatives of the Centro
Controllo Malattie (CCM), the Centre for Disease Control of the Italian
Ministry of Health. The results will be presented on 4th June
2015 at the Auditorium of the Ministry (via Giorgio Ribotta, 5 – Rome). The
meeting will take place only few days after the resolution on air pollution
adopted by the 68th World Health Assembly, a resolution that
reiterates the negative impact of pollution on health and that calls upon all
Governments to act on the issue with immediate and urgent measures.
The VIIAS project is the very first,
tangible, answer to this warning.
Besides providing a detailed map of the
environmental and health impact of air pollution, it actually stresses how
proper policies could help gains for the reduction of disease and mortality
rates, decreasing inequalities on the territory and saving public resources.
Also, the analysis put together by the VIIAS project enables us also to
perceive clearly how the nature of air pollution has changed over the past ten
years, by identifying biomass combustion for heating and diesel exhaust fumes
as the two main culprits prevention should focus on.
The new map of pollution in Italy
Using sophisticated statistical methods of
modelling the concentration of pollutants on the whole national territory, the
VIIAS project has estimated both the exposure risk for the Italian population
and the total mortality rate – as well as the mortality rate connected to
respiratory disease; cardiovascular disease and lung cancer in Italy and in
each and every Italian Region.
The picture emerging from the study provides
worrying numbers: 29% of the Italian population lives in areas where the
concentration of pollutants is constantly higher than the legal limit. In
addition, there are considerable inequalities in the health impact on the
Italian territory. As one may expect, pollution affects mostly the Northern
part of the country (65% of the total) where there is a high concentration of
urban areas with congested traffic and busy industrial belts. Biomass
combustion (mainly wood and pellet) is also responsible for a higher mortality
and morbidity rates caused by fine particulate matter.
The reckonings carried out during the project
show clearly the evolution of the effects of pollution on health throughout
time. In 2005 the number of deaths linked to pollution was distributed as
follows: 34,552 due to PM2.5; 23,387 due to NO2 and 1,707 due to O3. However, 2010 marked a great
decrease for the numbers related to PM2.5 (21,524) and NO2 (11,993) especially
in view of less emissions in connection with the economic recession.
Whereas, in 2020, despite the technological
improvements and the policies implemented, seemingly the situation will be far
from better if compared to 2010 (28,595 deaths because of PM 2.5; 10,117
because of NO2).
Improving is possible but it is a complex
For 2020, the VIIAS project contemplates two
1. The full
compliance of Italy with all the laws, limits and regulations set at the
national and European level.
2. An even
reduction by 20% of the concentration of pollutants on the national territory.
Both scenarios would translate into many lives
saved: 11,000 for PM2.5 and 14,000 for NO2 for scenario number 1 and 16,000 for
PM2.5 and 18,000 for NO2 for scenario number 2 – always in comparison with the
This perspective shows how the full compliance
with the legal limits set by the current laws and, moreover, the further
reduction by 20% of the average yearly concentration would be incredibly
beneficial for public health. And for the Economy in turn: official WHO
statistics show that 10,000 deaths less a year equal to more or less 30 billion
Health in all policies
However, this is a very complex challenge. The
VIIAS study has in fact proved how the considerable reduction in emissions
happened over the past ten years has not led to a proportional decrease in the
level of exposure – especially in those areas of the Country (e.g. the Po
valley) whose geographical and weather conditions are particularly complicated.
Thus, it is of paramount importance to design
an effective plan for the air quality at the national level in coordination
with the regional planning – placing Health at the centre of all policies, in
agreement with what WHO has been advocating for a long time now. New measures
are a must to mitigate the growing impact of the biomass combustion: biomasses
are surely useful to counteract climate change but are also incredibly damaging
in terms of pollution created by particulate.
The commitment to sustainable mobility
(pedestrian, bicycle, eco-friendly public transportation systems) is a priority
- with a reduction of diesel fuelled vehicles, which are responsible for the
91% of all nitrogen dioxide emissions and for a high percentage of particulate
in the transport sector. The emissions coming from the agriculture (ammonia)
should be carefully monitored and limited too. In addition, focused forestation
interventions in urban zones could mitigate the effects of pollution in
The VIIAS project is coordinated by the Department of Epidemiology of the Lazio Region Health Service and is the result of an extensive collaboration involving Italian Universities and Research centres (e.g. ENEA, ISPRA, the ARPA of Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Lazio; the statistics dept. of the University of Florence, the University of Urbino and the Dept. of Environmental Biology of the La Sapienza University in Rome). On the website – updated by the project’s partner Zadig all the relevant data and materials / resources are available.